This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
The Washington Post: Why would people want to clone their dogs?
John Woestendiek: They want their dogs back is the simplest answer. And a lot of them believe they are getting their dogs back, as opposed to just a genetically identical twin. They are, often, grieving. They are often wealthy. They are often not used to being told no. They only sometimes realize how incredibly selfish their act is. They don’t realize they could almost always find an identical dog that is up for adoption somewhere, or they think that would only be a second-best choice. They want to keep the memories of the original and see cloning as a way of doing that, if not regaining what they see as some of the substance of the original.
TWP: How big a business opportunity did the scientists and companies involved believe dog cloning was, and how have their hopes panned out?
JW: They foresaw a huge market, both in banking dog cells and in cloning them for bereaved owners. There are always, due to their popularity and short life spans, many beloved dogs dying — and many families grieving. At one point there were three companies on the case, two of which were in South Korea. An American company — the one connected to the earliest efforts to clone a dog, at Texas A&M University — had formed earlier, but when unable to clone on their own, it teamed up with [a Korean firm]. The American company eventually pulled out, saying the standards they had applied to caring for the dogs used in their experiments were not being followed in Korea.
The effort to clone dogs began when John Sperling, the founder of the University of Phoenix, read about Dolly the sheep and decided to clone his girlfriend’s dog. The Texas A&M effort he funded failed, although they managed to clone many other species. South Korea picked up the research after that and pulled it off. The girlfriend’s dog? Missy, deceased by then, was eventually cloned in Korea, and one of the pups was presented to the girlfriend. She pronounced it overly rambunctious and didn’t keep it.
I think anti-cloning campaigns by animal welfare organizations and, I’d hope, exposés like my book may have kept the companies from thriving. The second Korean company pulled out, leaving, to my knowledge, only one lab where dogs are being commercially cloned for pet owners. Viagen, an American company, offers the service, but it’s not clear if they are actually performing cloning or acting as a middle man. Though the price has dropped — from the original $150,000 to $50,000, and sometimes less — the one company, while maybe not doing as well as hoped, is doing pretty well.
TWP: What does the process of dog cloning entail?
JW: At its very simplest, cells are taken from the donor dog. Egg cells are taken from numerous donor dogs. They are merged in a lab and subjected to chemicals and an electric shock to spur the merged cell to start dividing. The resulting embryos are implanted into more female dogs who serve as surrogates, carrying them to birth or whatever other outcome occurs.
TWP: What are some of the ethical questions involved?
JW: The big moral one is: Do we have the right to do this simply because we can? The animal welfare concerns are many: the number of dogs used in the process, the low success rates (early on), the sometimes freaky ways it can go awry.
In addition to cells from the donor dog, creating a clone involves multiple other dogs. In creating Snuppy, the first canine clone, Korean scientists extracted eggs surgically from about 115 female dogs; after merging, the embryos were implanted into 120 more female dogs who served as surrogates. Many of those were aborted along the way for study. At the time, dogs from Korean meat farms were used, for egg cells and as surrogates, and returned to the farms they came from to be raised and sold as meat. That doesn’t go on anymore, practitioners say, and the process has become far more effective, requiring far fewer dogs. How many varies and isn’t made public. Nor is how many surplus clones are created.
How, and how often, things go wrong isn’t information they are forthcoming about, either. In announcing the shutting down of BioArts, the American company involved in early cloning research that later pulled out of its partnership with one of the Korean cloning companies, the company’s president cited a clone who was supposed to be black and white being born “greenish-yellow,” dogs born with skeletal malformations and one clone of a male dog who was born with both male and female sex organs.
All these concerns ask the question: In a world with so many surplus, unwanted dogs in need of homes, should we really be creating more? The question that sticks in my mind the most is this: Is doing it fair to the original dog or diminishing the original dog? And is it fair to the clone, who will be subjected to all the high expectations of the original?
TWP: How close are cloned dogs to the originals?
JW: On looks alone, they can be very, very close to the originals. But this often involves producing a fairly massive amount of clones to get those one or two that are close to dead ringers of the original. Of course, this also creates a lot of surplus clones. I saw them years ago when I visited [one South Korean lab]. And I’m quite certain they are still being created, under the thinking if we produce a dozen clones, one is bound to be very close in appearance. What happens to them? Good question.
While appearance can, with enough tries, be duplicated, brains, personality and temperament — despite the claims of the earliest cloning companies — cannot. Those claims have been toned down over the years.
TWP: If Barbra Streisand had reached out to you for counsel before cloning her dog, what would you have told her?
JW: A resounding “Nooooooo!” I’d say at least understand the process first and the suffering the other dogs go through. I’d say ask yourself who you are doing this for. The original dog? Clearly not. The clone? No way. Yourself? Likely yes.