Pet Cloning: Grief, Choice and an Era of Irresponsibility

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At the end of December I came across a story in the News whose main subject continued to echo and reappear in my mind with different nuances and feelings attached, culminating with my decision to write this blog entry: a British couple welcomed the birth of two puppies via pet cloning services provided by a South Korean company.

The story was presented in a celebratory fashion, a success, the first of its kind – it was for the first time a boxer had been cloned using DNA from a dog who died almost two weeks before cell samples were prelevated. A medical success? Apparently so. A resurrection of a debate on a controversial topic that in my opinion couldn’t have come any sooner? A definite yes.

People all over the world voiced their opinions, ranging from fully supporting the practice to actively condemning the people and companies involved in commercial pet cloning. Human cloning and farm animal cloning have already been officially regulated in several American States and EU, where the practice is illegal, but pet cloning is still to be addressed in most parts of the world.

I think this particular debate may involve a bit of extra intensity than the other two subjects, because some of the aspects concerning it are more blurry than those considered in human or farm animal cloning, and therefore can be more subtly manipulated to serve one view or the other. And when some of the factors regard the possibility of restored or maintained emotional well-being, democratic rights and new economic ventures, a clear decision may not be visible right away or to everyone.

Considering the fact that the direct beneficiary of this new branch of services is represented by the general public (economic background not considered here, since it can suffer alterations in time), I believe that it is the average individual that needs to be prepared, through education on the topic and debate, so that at the end we will all be able to make healthy and humanity-friendly choices, independent of any options officials or companies may put before us. Humans, as a whole, are in the end the ones responsible for the direction of our progress as well as for the consequences of our bad decisions.

I know I will gain no popularity by saying the following, but I believe that when it comes to decisions and topics that only a few years ago seemed just science fiction material, the general public is not yet equipped to make informed choices and most of all, choices that directly impact our advancement as a civilization. Unfortunately, the results of this ill-equipped inhabitants of Earth can already be seen in the struggles we have in dealing with climate change, human and animal rights, conflict resolution and many others. This is why I think that if significant options, such as pet cloning, are left a click and a (even substantial) payment away, a similar result may occur. There are billions of us and we must admit that not as many are environment-conscious, society-conscious, science-conscious or even life-conscious when making everyday decisions, so I think it falls in the hands of those aware to at least try and balance the effects so that in the long run it won’t be ignorance and carelessness that decide our future as a civilization or species.

Considering the specific case of pet cloning, I think the first steps taken by companies and owners freely, guided only by their will and interests, with no official guidance or restrain, paint a rather disappointing (although not unpredictable) view of the field, and in my opinion, enough to make a decision against commercial pet cloning. Here is why.

The Misunderstanding: Where Emotion covers Knowledge Gaps

Let’s clarify what cloning is and what can one expect from pet cloning in particular.

According to The National Human Genome Research Institute, “cloning describes a number of different processes that can be used to produce genetically identical copies of a biological entity. The copied material, which has the same genetic makeup as the original, is referred to as a clone”. The same source informs us that cloning also occurs naturally in nature – asexual reproduction of certain plants and single-celled organisms – and that there are three types of artificial cloning – gene cloning (copies of genes and DNA segments), reproductive cloning (copies of entire animals) and therapeutic cloning (embryonic stem cells).

Pet cloning falls in the reproductive cloning category. In this type of cloning, the somatic material taken from the animal that one wants to clone (called a donor) provides the DNA that will be placed into an egg-cell voided by its former DNA, the egg will then develop into an early-stage embryo in a test-tube, and this embryo is implanted into the womb of an adult female animal. The clone is the animal resulted from this pregnancy (for which a surrogate mother may be needed), which carries “the same genetic make up as the animal that donated the somatic cell” (National Human Genome Research Institute).

We also need to note that although a variety of animals has been cloned, many attempts were required before each successful result. But perhaps some of the most important things to know about clones is that they will not necessarily look identical to the donor, most cloned embryos do not develop in healthy individuals, critical adverse health effects were observed in cloned animals, also premature aging and problems with the immune system and the life span of the clone may already be shorter than normal due to shorter chromosomes.

So this is the basic information provided by the National Human Genome Research Institute about reproductive cloning and its possible drawbacks. Based on this data, we can think of pet cloning as a way of creating an animal that will have the same genetic make up as the one an owner wants to clone, that may or may not resemble that animal, that is very likely to have numerous health problems and a shorter life span, that is if it gets to be born at all, given the risk of embryo development failure in the early stages.

But are owners who decided to clone their pets aware of and understand these things? From the interviews I read online, I’m inclined to answer “No” to this question.

According to an article in The Guardian, the statements made by the couple who decided to clone their late dog, Dylan, this year, in a laboratory in South Korea, include the following: “I’m trying to get my head round the fact that this puppy has 100% of the same DNA as Dylan,”[..]“It’s quite confusing but I’m telling myself that Chance is just like one of Dylan’s puppies”. But it is not one of Dylan’s puppies and I do not think that it should be seen as such. It’s a rationalization, a comforting lie that one must tell himself/herself in order to accommodate this new life into their own. The meaning has been distorted to accommodate traditional views. Humans do not yet grasp the concept of clone as part of everyday life. Therefore, I tend to believe we would not be able to cater to them in a proper manner anyway.

But if clients do not actually understand what a clone is, why do they require one? One of the main (and heavily advertised) reasons has nothing to do with the animals being cloned, but with their owner’s emotional realm, which to me, seems really fragile and will explain later why. It is a way to apparently help one with the grieving process. It’s another feel-good pill popped into the minds of potential clients, a promise, in the shape of misleading metaphors, that cannot be kept. So, mainly, people who choose pet cloning do it for an emotional reason and I would venture to say that the intensity of this reason overrides any critical reasoning that may be adjacent to a decision that in the end involves life. If these pets were human babies and the reason the same, would the world agree to human cloning?

The Reality Rupture: Ignorance meets Selfishness

Emotion as main drive for pet cloning decision. A human’s emotion as main drive for pet cloning decision. That to me sounds selfish enough. But we are known to be selfish. Question is, must we also be incredibly ignorant and careless when deciding to bring new life into the world? And especially in a manner that also affects other lives, usually in a painful and totally unnecessary way?

Reasoning behind a human’s decision to clone a pet can sink to really trivial, if not even vile levels.

NPR presented the story of another couple who decided to clone their pet, while it was still alive. The reason this time is obviously not grief (at least not in the beginning, the donor died after the procedure took place). But what else, then? “Even though the process would cost them $100,000, the couple decided to do it. They’d already spent that much on a Humvee, [Name] notes. “So, what the heck?“”.

The “what the heck” reason produced two clones. A third one (actually the first cloned puppy) died from an infectious disease.

In this case too the clients seem to misunderstand the idea of cloning and what it can do. “We’re looking at having the one special dog again”. But you won’t. To remind you, the dog was still alive at the time of the first three clonings. So that couldn’t have been the reason for the first cloning request. Or the second (that produced two clones).

In addition, the same person comments on the reasons behind dog owners’ decisions to clone their pets and says that they don’t do it “with the idea of producing 10 more”. And here she is correct, not 10 more, but 4 more so far. They also consider to have a fourth clone created for their grandson. Will four suffice? On a sarcastic note, I do not understand why they would stop, since Valentine’s Day, Easter and Christmas seem like perfectly good contexts to give someone a cloned pet as an extra-special present. Maybe even clone the clone.

The Irresponsible Human

So far, from what I read about the reasons people have for cloning their dead or still alive pets, not even a single one convinced me of the necessity and even more, on the morality of the procedure, let alone its commercial attribute.

So far, people clone their pets because they can. What follows under the label of reason is rather arbitrary, most of the times selfish and sometimes downright trivial.

Add to this the fact that a person cloned her alive pet as a result of a competition organized by a cloning laboratory, providing a free clone as a prize. Free babies anyone? Why not decide to have a child via IVF or surrogate just because you won a coupon at a fertilization clinic? The reason seems valid to me. (Not.)

The Lies That Sell

If clear and honest information is not the one that convinces people to clone their pets, what does then? Since the main reason for which people require cloning seems to be the emotional pain generated by the loss of a beloved pet, the advertisements would have to address that somehow. And they do deliver (pun not necessarily intended).

The Sooam Biotech Research Foundation, “the leading laboratory in the world for dog cloning”, who “has produced more than 700 dogs for commercial customers” and who, in my opinion, should pay a high advertising fee to The Guardian & Co. for mentioning their name and wonderful realizations over and over and over again, states on their website the following: “Dogs have been domesticated for thousands of years. They have been our protectors and friends; however, an average lifespan of a dog is about 10~15 years, much shorter than that of a human being. Sooam Biotech Research Foundation is able to prolong the companionship with your dog by bringing back the memories that you have with your friend. Cloning technology is possible at Sooam for any dog no matter its age, size, and breed. Sooam not only performs dog cloning research, but we also heal the broken hearts.

*Cough* BS *Cough*

To me, the presentation of their services is a rather feeble, but nonetheless effective, manipulation material that attempts to trigger emotional reasoning in those reading it. They attempt at first to set the context of the historic dogs-humans relationship, they induce the idea of protectors and then, with no relevance to the topic, they compare the life span of a dog to that of a human. I do not think a dog owner ever bought a dog thinking that the pet will live as long as the human lives. And then they throw in the two direct emotional manipulations: that they can prolong the companionship with your dog, a strong idea that will shade the secondary one, “prolong… through bringing back memories”, and the one that they will heal your heart, which is not a verifiable result of this procedure, unless they throw in heart surgery with the cloning, for those who need it. Now, for the first, memories can be brought back in a variety of ways, and none of those that come to my mind has a price tag even close to $100,000 nor does any of them involve hurting other animals in the process. Most of them are free: you look at pictures, videos – pictures and videos of your dog, of a dog similar to yours, an entirely different breed of dog, you can get another dog, similar or not, talk about dogs, write about them etc. Free, therapeutic and pain-free. As for the healed heart…

I think it’s really disturbing that pet cloning commercial materials seem to be no different from those of a drink that “brings the family together” or a perfume that makes you feel more confident.

The Economy of Pet Cloning: The Advantages of Knowledge Gaps and Emotional Vulnerability

They may heal your heart, but will most certainly hurt your wallet. Pet cloning is a commercial service that costs somewhere in the range of $100,000. And it’s not just cloning laboratories that profit from this, by-services jumped on the pet cloning wagon too and flourish beautifully. Preserving services provide biopsy kits and ways to preserve the tissue of the pets, in the eventuality of cloning. These companies also seem to be more careful and truthful when presenting their services and cloning, using terms like “genetic twins” and mentioning medical diagnose and treatment as possibilities linked to preservation. The fee for these services is around $1,500.

Many could argue the fact that pet cloning or any other type of cloning does not pose a real risk for social development, due to the high costs. Now, maybe that is still the case for trips to the Moon, but I think the fee for cloning could be reached easier by more and more people. If the practice would be considered legal, more laboratories would appear and competition would perhaps make prices to vary a lot, from country to country and depending on the conditions in which the cloning would take place (tools, surrogacy, the way surgical interventions are done, how they care for the dogs that have undergone surgical procedures etc). If validated, donations could be made so that people could afford cloning their pets, perhaps banks would jump at the opportunity too and make available cloning credits etc. When you have emotion in the mix, money may become no object.

The False Grief Management: Or the Overall Emotional Management Issue

So Grief seems to be the moving core of the pet cloning services. People say that having a dog that resembles a beloved pet that died would help them deal with the loss in a better way. But is that actually accurate? Does a genetic copy of one’s pet help with the grieving process?

I will venture here and say without waiting for further information from eventual studies conducted on clients of commercial cloning,  that it is most likely that owning a pet clone of a former dog will have no advantages over the more classic version of adopting another dog or raising the offspring of the late animal. The idea of a 1:1 genetic continuation of a person’s relationship with their pet can mean the delay in dealing with one’s feelings and not a shortcut to effectively managing them.

Although the loss of a pet can be an extremely difficult time and each individual has his/her own way to deal with this event, I think it is highly important in this case, as in many other significant aspects of life, to make the difference between efficient and inefficient, reasonable and unreasonable, rational and irrational. People have had to deal with this type of loss since they have domesticated animals. And obviously, they have been successful in overcoming the intense feelings of sadness. So as far as necessity goes, cloned pets are not necessary to the grieving process. When they lose a loved one, some people find it helpful to keep a physical token that reminds them of that person or animal (clothing, jewelry, pictures, even ashes etc). But these are all inanimate objects, significant only because somebody invested them with meaning and emotional value. The living reminders, until several years ago, were only the descendants. Now, the clones. At least for pets. But a clone does not interact with the owner in a specific, clone-like way, so there is no external cue that makes this relationship unlike any other. It is all in the mind of the owner. There is where we find the continuation and most importantly, the need for a continuation. When the reason for cloning a pet is the intense belief that this is a viable way to continue the relationship with the late pet, then I believe learning to manage negative feelings and probing the underlying factors that generated the distress, represent a more appropriate approach to the matter than placing all responsibility and hopes regarding emotional well-being towards an external object, even if it is a living object. My hypothesis is that many of the people who would opt for pet cloning would usually find it hard to deal with intense or deep emotions and that that should be addressed first. “I lost all sense of time. I have no idea how long everything took, the whole thing made me feel very disoriented. I was just clinging on to [Partner’s Name] for about an hour and a half after Chance was born” (The Guardian). This is the statement of a person who witnessed the birth of a cloned dog, through caesarian section, via surrogate. To me, this seems like a very intense emotional experience and I am not sure whether many people would react the same at the birth of a puppy. Sure it is normal to feel excitement in situations like these, but when you put everything into context, I take the hypothesis of overreaction into account.

So, does pet cloning help with grief? I think it covers grief. And maybe not just pet loss related grief, but negative emotions in general. And how could one conclude they have a hard time dealing with loss if they haven’t given themselves the time to even try and deal with it? The cloning process usually occurs after several months from the pet’s death and the biopsy itself – even if taken while the animal was still alive, as recommended – acts as a process initiator and reminder of what is expected to happen in the future. Closure never gets a chance. Emotional expression never gets a chance. Healing never gets a chance.

There are many ways to deal with emotional distress. Some of these ways are mature and healthy, while others just mimmick adaptation.

The “Beings”: The Original and The Clone

How would you react if your parents or your spouse would tell you that you are so special to them and they love you so much that they consider having several more yous done in the future? Now, while you are still next to them or maybe after you’re dead. Just for the sake of empathy, imagine the previous scenario.

Pet owners say it is a special relationship they have or have had with the donor that ultimately makes them want to clone him/her, but multiplication ruins uniqueness and blurres identity. Why would one want to dissipate that one relationship while the animal is still alive? And for cloning in the hope that it will help continue the relationship with a deceased dog… The end is part of that relationship too.

As for the clone, if the owner sees it as a direct replacement of a late dog, that makes the new animal almost invisible in the relationship. It is a relationship with a fantasy, not an authentic interaction with an animal that also deserves to be seen as a unique individual.

When humans adopt humans there are many ways to verify the motivation of the future parents. When humans clone pets, we so far seem to treat it like they have another custom suit made using the pattern of their favorite one. This attitude does not benefit any of the parties.

Democratic Rights

Some people addressed the choice of pet owners of spending a big sum of money for a cloning service instead of using that amount for what they thought to be a socially more useful way. In response, others argued that it is a democratic right to use your money in whatever way you want and censorship in this regard goes against these rights.

I think both parties are right, but not when considered in the same context. These subjects are fundamentally different and it would be a bias to merge them into one subject or issue. People definitely should dispose of their resources in whichever way they want. Also, many significant personal and social issues could benefit from $100,000 funds. But in what regards human rights, especially freedom of choice, I believe that we should take into account the idea of option limitation. Options that may infringe another living being’s well-being should  be carefully considered and if the result is not related to a basic need of species (and here I mostly refer to animals), then they should not be allowed as options.

Many beings living together make democracy look like a honeycomb of freedoms that define and (de)limit other freedoms. There is no limitless, absolute freedom.

Social Impact

What does pet cloning mean for the modern society? How did it shape society so far, and how would society look when pet cloning will be regulated and considered either legal or illegal?

For the moment being, society has not been deeply influenced by the idea of pet cloning. Many do not know of it yet. Those who do know about it have taken firm pro or versus stances or remained neutral, as it usually happens with many social aspects. From those who decided to be active in the matter, the opponents invoke the implications of cloning procedures and the way they consider they infringe animal rights, while supporters mixed in their expression of agreement both verbal support and direct action – having their pets cloned. Both groups can simultaneously be thought of as being biased or being driven by good intentions. Although I am an opponent of pet cloning, I do not wish to say that one group is good, while the other one is bad. The matter is complex and when working towards conclusions, we do not all work with the same data or use similar algorithms.

The future, with pet cloning. Socially, it would basically mean that a whole population of clones would be developed and both humans and animals would have to accommodate them into the everyday reality of their lives. The biggest issue that would arise would be, in my opinion, the health risks and special care a cloned animal may be subjected to. Consequently, whole new industry branches would appear – medical, nutrition, breeding, entertainment and economy would be affected by this. I am not the one to further analyze these consequences, but specialists in these fields could probably provide a more detailed perspective.

The future, without pet cloning. In my opinion, a responsible version. Even if pet cloning would be of no risk to society, economy, mental health or even the health of the clone and discomfort would be limited for the other animals involved in the process, I still think we are left with the problem of measure, moderation. Humanity is at a point where impulsive actions shape everyday lives and civilization. We buy too much, we consume too much, we make too much of many useless things. We are reckless with our resources and take life on this planet as granted. We are greedy and many times lack gratitude. We think we deserve everything and owe nothing. I know these are over-generalizations, but global results are mainly given by a majority of actions.

When making responsible decisions regarding pet cloning, we basically need to compare the options one has in order to become a pet owner. One can buy (from shops or breeders), adopt (from shelters or breeders/owners) or clone (their own pets or those of others). I encourage adoption, but even with the buying option available, there are four main ways to become a pet owner already available to the general public. I have already mentioned that the clone, aside the subjective significance assigned by the one ordering the clone, offers no supplementary experience to the pet owner. So why decide in favor of it?

Personal Responsibility

Responsibility. This is actually the idea around which this entire article orbits. The main idea on which I always want to bring awareness upon. A term that bothers many and I cannot quite understand why. It’s been pointed out to me that the Western world seems to be more comfortable with a term like personal agency, rather than personal responsibility. But I do not want to sugarcoat anything. I do not feel that humans need to be sheltered from direct information, from words. I do not think that we should be allowed to escape existence by building ideal bubbles of a make-believe reality. Shelter is only needed in special circumstances and humanity does not display those features. So, personal responsibility it is.

We are and need to see ourselves as responsible for what happens in our personal lives and we need to be aware that our actions do add up into a global result.

To many, I am sure, the topic of pet cloning seems just a side subject to the everyday News, a novel topic that only affects some of us and that, most of all, is a normal extension of our continually developing world. The majority of people, especially in the Western world, are used to having new opportunities presented to them on a daily basis – from technological advancements, to medical ones, to new ways to deal with everyday social issues and personal development tips that would not only modify the world surrounding us, but the very individuals. There’s an avalanche of information and although many tune in responsibly and try to weigh at least some of the topics using their own filters and try to adapt to the changing world, a vast majority is blind to everything coming their way, if a direct impact on their lives is not clearly stated. We cannot all be equally interested in all matters and subjects concerning even our everyday lives, but when we do want to be an active part in a decision process, we should let informed opinions guide the way.

Let’s not make cloning a fashion trend for spoiled and immature humans.

Humans are great and have generated a variety of scientific advancements. But just because we can do a certain thing, does it mean that we should? I wrote about this topic in a previous article that discussed what extreme science looks like and whether we should go as far as we can, just because science allows us to.

If we want to move forward I think we should also develop the kind of conscience that is also concerned with global advancement and preservation, macro results and one that sees the human species not in an isolated manner, but in sync with other species and the natural environment.

To develop this modern conscience, awareness is needed. Critical reasoning is needed. Emotional maturity is key. Humans need to adapt not only to what surrounds them, but also to their newly acquired ability to critically shape the world at a rate and in ways never before seen. We are creators, but I am not sure we know how to be creators.

These are wonderful times. We are all stepping into this new world of possibilities and I think that, most of all, we need to step in carefully and responsibly. Our footprints should remain visible in time, not be covered in dust.

References

Cloning Fact Sheet. (n.d.). Retrieved January 10, 2016, from https://www.genome.gov/25020028
Dog Cloning at SOOAM. (n.d.). Retrieved January 10, 2016, from http://en.sooam.com/dogcn/sub01.html
Dog, Cat & Horse Pet DNA, genetic preservation and Cloning. (n.d.). Retrieved January 10, 2016, from http://www.perpetuate.net/
No Pet Cloning : AAVS. (n.d.). Retrieved January 10, 2016, from http://www.nopetcloning.org/
Preserving Your Pets. (n.d.). Retrieved January 10, 2016, from http://www.viagen.com/our-services/preserving_pets.php
Stein, R. (2015, October 6). Cloning Your Dog, For A Mere $100,000. Retrieved January 10, 2016, from http://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2015/09/30/428927516/cloning-your-dog-for-a-mere-100-000
Taylor, D. (2015, December 26). British couple celebrate after birth of first cloned puppy of its kind. Retrieved January 10, 2016, from http://www.theguardian.com/science/2015/dec/26/british-couple-celebrate-after-birth-of-first-cloned-puppy-of-its-kind?CMP=twt_a-science_b-gdnscience
What is Cloning? (n.d.). Retrieved January 10, 2016, from http://learn.genetics.utah.edu/content/cloning/whatiscloning/
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