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Cloning of horses prompts debate over registering genetic duplicates

By Stephen Hudak
Tuesday, May 4, 2010; HE06

The chestnut stallion was the love of Zarela Olsen's life. A majestic Paso Fino with personality and a bright copper coat, Capuchino often greeted his fawning owner with kisses, nuzzling her neck and licking the back of her ears. "When he died, he took my heart with him," said Olsen, 46. "I could not stop crying and crying."

But Olsen had planned ahead. The Florida horsewoman invested $160,000 in the replicating services of a biotech company specializing in the controversial practice of animal cloning. Her champion's genetic duplicate, Capuchino Forever, was born last May. Such births have spawned debate and wonder among breeders and owners in the equine world.

"They smell money," said Carol Harris, 86, owner of Bo-Bett Farm near Ocala, Fla,, a horse breeder for about 60 years and an outspoken opponent of cloning champions. "They're looking for a shortcut to a great horse." Harris said she fears horse owners someday may need patents for their champions instead of registration papers.

She said she doesn't oppose cloning in the name of science and equine health, but she also doesn't think it should be widespread, sanctioned or embraced by horse organizations, which aim to preserve and protect the breeds. "Breeding is an art," she said. "Cloning is just replication." Harris said horse owners who want to clone their animals -- and insist on having their offspring certified as purebred American Quarter Horses -- ought to form their own association.

Many others in the equine industry also think cloning is horsing around with nature.

Powerful horse associations have enacted rules forbidding the registration of clones, a prohibition that prevents the animals from competing in breed-sanctioned events and lessens their stud value.

The Stud Book and Registration Committee of the American Quarter Horse Association recently nixed a proposed rule change that would have allowed registration of clones. The association's seal adds value to horses: The better the pedigree, the more valuable the horse.

The Jockey Club, thoroughbred racing's governing body in North America, keeps the tightest rein on breeding practices, restricting registration only to animals born from the traditional coupling of stallion and mare.

Cloning proponents say some opposition may be a result of ignorance.

"There's a little bit of an 'ick' factor for some people," said Karen Batra, spokeswoman for BIO, a 1,200-member organization of biotechnology companies. "They're thinking it's growing Frankensteins in a lab, and that's simply not the case." Texas A&M University veterinary medicine professor Katrin Hinrichs, who was lead scientist on the team that in 2005 cloned the first horse in North America, said the process involves live tissue cells taken from under the skin of a prized horse.

Hinrichs defended cloning as a powerful research tool that can help scientists find cures for diseases in horses and other animals by isolating and studying the effects of genetics and environment. She said the cloning process also can help preserve for future breeding generations the genetics of great competitive horses that often are gelded, or castrated, before their athletic prowess is discovered.

The first clone of an adult mammal was Dolly, a sheep born in 1996. Italian scientists cloned the first horse in 2003, a mare named Prometea. About 65 equine clones now exist, at least 50 of which were produced by ViaGen, the Texas-based company Zarela Olsen used to clone her beloved Capuchino, who was crowned the Paso Fino "Horse of the Millennium" in 1999.

ViaGen spokeswoman Candace Dobson wouldn't disclose precisely how many cloned horses ViaGen has produced. But the number is increasing. The company, which is expecting the births of 50 more clones this year, has produced quarter horses, polo ponies, Arabians and thoroughbreds for athletic competitions that don't require breed-registration papers.

Some critics, horse owners and genetic researchers contend that the clones are not exact duplicates of the originals and could possibly produce a horse of a different color pattern. But, Hinrichs noted, even identical twins have recognizable differences.

No one knows whether Capuchino Forever will mirror the success of the original, a horse who entertained crowds on two continents and sired more than 5,000 offspring at $3,500 per stud. Unless the rules change, Capuchino Forever won't even have a chance to follow in his predecessor's hoof prints. The Paso Fino Horse Association does not allow the registration of clones -- or the offspring of clones.

But Olsen is delighted with her beloved horse's spitting image.

"The first time I saw him, I cried again," Olsen said. "'He even gave me two little licks behind my ears. I cried, 'Capuchino, it's you! You're back!' "

-- Orlando Sentinel

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