Monday, April 22, 2002

Clone a pet? Idea rubs
some people the wrong way




By Mike Pulfer mpulfer@enquirer.com
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        So you've got the perfect dog. Or cat. Or horse. Naturally, you want to keep him. Or her. Or it. You want to grow old together. At the very least, you want to produce plenty of offspring, maybe with pedigrees that generate money. But do you want a clone of your pet? Do you believe in cloning? Some people do.

        Genetic Savings and Clone in College Station, Texas, which began freezing cell samples of cherished pets and livestock two years ago, says it has hundreds of names on its client list and hopes to offer cloning on a case-by-case basis by the end of this year. Some of those clients are from the Cincinnati area, says Ben Carlson, vice president, communications, though he wouldn't release names.

        Genetic Savings helped finance a $3.7 million research project at Texas A&M University which produced the first cat clone, “CC” (short for CopyCat), in February. While debate over human cloning continues on a global level, Genetic Savings is one of several new companies trying to pair animal cloning with profit making.

        In addition to the cat, sheep, cattle, mice, goats, pigs — and an endangered baby Asian ox called a gaur — all have successfully been cloned.

        And hundreds of people have paid Genetic Savings as much as $1,395 — plus a local veterinarian bill and overnight shipping expenses — to have cells harvested and sent to the Texas storage facility. Genetic Savings' standard charge is $895 for a healthy animal. Tissue is stored for $100 a month.

        If and when cloning becomes commercially available, experts predict that, initially, cloning might cost as much as $250,000.

Opponents

        While Genetic Savings has local clients, it was hard to find many real people who would admit they support the notion of animal cloning, much less part with that kind of money to replicate a pet.

        There are less expensive ways to get a dog. And, opponents say, better ones.

        “You can never replace what you lost,” says Dale Bath, director, Harlequin Haven Great Dane and St. Bernard Rescue, Bethel. “Something's got to be different. Even if it's just the personality, it's not going to be an exact match.”

        Every year, 8 million to 12 million dogs and cats end up in shelters. Of those, 2 million to 3 million dogs and 3 million to 4 million cats are euthanized. The argument of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals — and many shelters — is one of numbers. Why clone a pet when so many others are available?

        “I have to say I think there's too many out there right now,” says Ms. Bath. “We are inundated. There are not enough good homes out there.”

Proponents

        On the other hand, Tom Hedge of West Chester points out the basic issue that makes pet cloning so tempting.

        “Human life is 70 years,” he says. “Pets are only 10. Certain pets are endeared. Some people can mourn for a long time.”

        Mr. Hedge developed his own way to soften the blow of losing a pet. He calls it his “family pet replacement program.” When a dog gets to be 8 or 9 years old, he gets a puppy. “We're on our third Springer Spaniel,” he said.

        He says he would have considered cloning for one special dog. “I think it would be great,” he says, but adds “I get the feeling it would be very expensive. It probably wouldn't be worth it in the long run.”

        David Rice, a dog owner from Pierce Township,says he would consider it, once it is proven and if it becomes inexpensive.

        “I don't see anything wrong with it,” Mr. Rice says. “I guess I would be in favor of it.”

        But not now, not for the pet Bichon Frise he and his wife, Mary, have at home.

        “It takes a while to see true results,” he says. Plus, the price tag is too high now. He would think about it "if it got down to something reasonable. But it would have to be under $1,000.”

Vets debating issue

               The American Veterinary Medical Association and its state affiliates in Kentucky and Ohio have not announced official positions on pet cloning, but some spokesmen said the issue was expected to be discussed at upcoming meetings this spring.

        Rama Kasturi, an assistant professor at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine. says she sees no ethical problem with the idea of cloning animals, although personally she thinks it is a waste of money.

        “I'm not sure what the point is, because you're not sure you're even going to get the same coat,” she says. “A better thing would be to adopt from the pound instead of spending thousands of dollars.”

        Ms. Kasturi and her husband, Erik Nelson, have a 7-year-old black lab mix. Argos is a former training dog she adopted from the university.

        “But there's the emotional side of it, and people will spend anything when emotions are involved.

        Even the general manager at SPCA Cincinnati, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, sees why people would be attracted to cloning beloved pets.

        “It is understandable that someone with funds to spare might want to recapture a special bond with a companion animal,” says Harold Dates.

        However, getting a new and different pet can be rewarding too, he says.

        “I have had the good fortune to experience a wide variety of pets.” he says. “The diversity of each animal has enriched my life in many ways. I would not trade all of those special times for a duplication of one.”

Ditto a Secretariat?

        With cloning, animal breeders who feel they have the perfect physical traits of a championship horse — or dog or cat or cow — could reproduce those qualities without mixing the traits of a second animal.

        Consider horse racing, for example. It is now possible to save the DNA of the champion of the upcoming Kentucky Derby and — sometime in the near future — produce clones of it and race the clones.

        Amy Rosell, an owner at Wind Row Farm, Lebanon, is familiar with cloning, but says it is not being considered — or even discussed — at the Warren County horse-breeding facility.

        Some breeders, she says, might consider it “if they have a proven horse that's won a lot of races and they have a full sister or brother they want to breed to the same stallion.

        “We will never do it.”

        Gary Nie, a Lexington equine veterinarian who has been a leader in horse embryo transplants, says it is being talked about in his circle.

        “A few clients here and there have raised the question, "How close is it (cloning)? Is it possible any time soon?' That sort of thing.

        “I think it's quite a ways away on a commercial basis. If ever.”

        Like other experts, he cautions that cloning offers no guarantees.

        A horse clone “might have the predisposition for bone development or muscle mass, but then all the environmental factors come in,” he says. “Training, nutritional management, any of the many many foal-age ailments ... and how it matures will help affect what kind of athlete it will be.

        “We certainly need a sense of responsibility in using this technique we've been blessed to have the intelligence to develop,” he said.

Clone is a "same as'

        Among the hundreds of animal cells stored thus far at Genetic Savings, Mr. Carlson says most of them represent dogs, followed by cats, cattle and horses, in that order.

        “What's challenging right now is educating people on what cloning is and is not,” he said.

        “When people are grieving the loss of an animal, their greatest hope is to bring it back to life,” he said. “We can't do that.

        “We can produce a genetically identical animal... but it will have none of the memories or experiences of the genetic donor.

        It might not even look the same.

        More reasonable expectations: “If an animal has an exceptional genetical endowment, such as being very long lived, having few health problems, strong or athletic or intelligent... or it's exceptionally suited to the owner's own tastes.”

        In general terms, “If it is raised in a similar fashion, in a similar environment with similar experiences, it probably would be similar.”

        Cloning, he said, is likely to “...help us learn more about that ongoing question: To what extent is behavior genetically influenced and to what extent not?”

       



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