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Purr. Whirr.

Wave of the Future?

Cloning, says Arthur Caplan, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, "may in some ways be overhyped." Bringing back your dead pet is not all it's cracked up to be, he says. "The new dog won't know the old tricks."

And, Caplan adds, it's way too expensive for most people.

Advantages Cleo, above, has over a real cat are that the robo-cat does not have to be fed or cleaned up after, like the frisky cloned kittens Tabouli and Baba Ganoush, top right, with Genetic Savings & Clone chief executive Lou Hawthorne last year. GS& C chief scientific officer Philip Damiani, right, is working to meet a deadline for cloning a dog. "I feel the pressure every day when I come to work," Damiani says. (Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)

Nor is Caplan a believer in robotic pets. "I don't think people are going to bond with their robo-pets in the way they do with organic pets."

But the lessons being learned in the robotics clean rooms and cloning labs -- by the Libins, Dresser, Damiani and others -- may prove fruitful when the pets of tomorrow are created.

"Genetic engineering is the wave of the future," Caplan says. People will be in the market for animals that can live in apartments and are easier to take care of. And for pets that are more obedient, quicker to learn and, Caplan says, "in some instances even nastier than some pit bull situations."

We are seeing early signs of these lab-modified pets. The GloFish, a glowing zebra fish imbued with a fluorescence gene, arrived in pet stores last year. Allerca, a California-based company, is advertising the near-future development of "lifestyle pets" -- such as a short-haired cat bred for allergy sufferers -- using genetic technology. Time will tell if their techniques work.

There is nothing inherently wrong with pet modification, Caplan says, if it produces "pets that leave a smaller footprint on the environment." Or a pet with some worthwhile purpose. Increasing the life span of a cherished pet or curing its hearing defect or hip dysplasia is a noble cause, Caplan says. "But the debate will center in another direction."

He believes there is an appetite for "freakish traits" in pets and he sees an ominous coming day: the eight-legged dog, for example.

"Using genetic engineering to create freaks or oddities is wrong," he says, "in pets as in humans."

And the world will be divided between the natural-pet group and the engineered-pet group. "They'll probably coexist and sneer at each other," he says.

Martha Armstrong of the Humane Society of the United States is dead set against frivolous modifications. "If someone is creating a designer dog or cat that fits your lifestyle so you don't sneeze," she believes you might not be cut out to be a pet owner.

She says, "Who are we doing this for? Certainly not for the benefit of the animal. Healthy dogs and cats are being destroyed. Someone wants to manipulate a dog or cat to make it fit into their lifestyle, or clone a new animal simply because they want a replica, they are not going to get what they are looking for, and there are going to be a lot of discards as a result of trying to."

All of the talk about cloning and gene-manipulation reminds Armstrong of a Mark Twain witticism: "If man could be crossed with the cat, it would improve man, but it would deteriorate the cat."

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