Clone a cat, go to jail -- or at least pay a fine.
That is the goal of animal welfare activists who announced yesterday that they are seeking state and federal restrictions on the small but growing pet-cloning industry.
The first cloned feline, CC (short for Copy Cat), was created in 2001 by researchers in Texas.
(Richard Olsenius -- Texas A&m University Via Reuters)
Spearheaded by the American Anti-Vivisection Society in suburban Philadelphia, the effort takes aim at companies such as Genetic Savings and Clone Inc., the California enterprise that last year began to fill orders for cloned cats. The clones -- which have sold for $50,000 each -- are genetic duplicates of customers' deceased pets and represent the leading edge of an emerging commercial sector that advocates predict could eventually reap billions of dollars for corporate cloners.
Several companies are racing to compete with Genetic Savings and Clone, the industry leader, which has produced about a half-dozen cloned cats and aims to achieve the more difficult goal of cloning a dog this year. Some companies are already selling fish genetically engineered to glow in the dark, while one has said it will soon produce cats engineered to not cause reactions in people allergic to felines.
Yesterday the AAVS announced it had petitioned the Agriculture Department to regulate pet-cloning companies as it does other animal research labs under the Animal Welfare Act. The act demands minimum standards of animal care and detailed reporting of the fates of laboratory animals.
The group has also been working with a California lawmaker to introduce state legislation that would ban the sale of cloned or genetically engineered pets.
"Pet cloning companies offer false hope of never having to let go of a pet and are causing harm to animals in the process," the AAVS concluded in a report released yesterday, "Pet Cloning: Separating Facts From Fluff."
Managers of Genetics Savings and Clone reacted quickly to the charges, convening a news conference immediately after one sponsored by the AAVS. They denied emphatically that their enterprise takes advantage of grieving pet owners or harms animals.
"We bend over backwards to make sure people are doing this for the right reasons," said the company's president, Lou Hawthorne. Nonetheless, he said, "we're open to additional oversight, provided it makes sense."
Scientists who have cloned cattle, sheep and other farm animals have reported high rates of biological abnormalities, and unexpected deaths during gestation and in the first days of life. Hawthorne said that has not been the case with cats, though he declined yesterday to release specific numbers, which he said he hopes to publish in a scientific journal.
But critics said the process raises other concerns, including the welfare of egg donor and surrogate-mother animals that must undergo multiple surgeries as part of the process of making clones.
The potential for consumer fraud is also an issue. Clones tend to be ordered by people who are grieving the loss of a much-loved pet and who may have unrealistically high expectations of their clones. Although they share identical genetic profiles, clones do not always resemble originals because coat patterns are not strictly genetically determined. Personalities and behavior patterns are even less predictable on the basis of genetics alone.
"Consumers are likely under the impression that a clone is a carbon copy. We believe they are being misled," AAVS policy analyst Crystal Miller-Spiegel said.
David Magnus, director of Stanford University's Center for Biomedical Ethics, spoke more bluntly.
"People are not getting what they think they're getting," Magnus said. "This is a $50,000 rip-off."
In fact, Genetic Savings and Clone announced this week that it is reducing the price of its clones to $32,000 per kitten, part of a business plan that Hawthorne said aims to make the company profitable in the next few years.
"I think it's going to be a multibillion-dollar market," he said. "There will be thousands of dogs and cats [cloned] every year."
Not if the AAVS has anything to say about it. At a minimum, the group's petition to the USDA says, pet-cloning companies should have to register as a "research facility" subject to the same degree of federal oversight that university and other research labs withstand. Currently they are effectively unregulated because they are not classified as animal research labs, breeders or kennels.
The California legislation, under development by assembly member Lloyd E. Levine, a Democrat from Van Nuys, would outlaw the sale or transport of cloned or engineered pets, which could include larger mammals such as horses and calves meant as "companion animals."
Levine's bill, like the AAVS report, reflects perhaps the most glaring concern of pet-cloning opponents: the enormous glut of homeless pets already. Last year, about 1.5 million dogs and cats passed through California's shelters, and two-thirds of them were euthanized, the bill's preamble notes.
"Pet cloning serves no good purpose, does harm to animals and should be banned," said Richard Hayes, executive director of the Center for Genetics and Society, a public affairs organization based in Oakland. "Assembly member Levine's proposal is long overdue, and other states should follow his lead."