By John Rolfe / Red Hook, N.Y.
As a human who feels great affection for animals, I know how hard it is to bid farewell to a beloved pet. Heck, I wept at the passing of my daughter’s guinea pig Freda Fluffernutter and the demise of a Rhode Island Red hen my wife named Freda (in honor of her mother). So I’m not surprised that pet cloning is a lucrative industry.
Ever since scientists in Scotland produced Dolly the Sheep in 1996, tinkering with the genes of animals has expanded from attempts at improving farm critters by making them more disease-resistant to replicating furry friends such as dogs and cats. The process is complicated, can take eight months to a year, and involves multiple animals (the original, an egg donor, and one to carry the embryo to term).
It’s also expensive. ViaGen, a biotechnology company in Texas, charges $35,000 to clone a cat and $50,000 for a pooch. Legendary singer Barbra Streisand forked over $100,000 for two copies of Samantha, her beloved Coton de Tulear. The company says it cranks out hundreds of replica pets each year.
I say “replica” because anyone hoping to bring their dearly departed back to life or create an exact carbon copy will be disappointed.
For one thing, the new edition may look almost exactly like the original but is certain to have a different personality. (This reminds me of Stephen King’s classic novel, Pet Sematary, in which Church, a family’s sweet cat, comes back from the dead with, shall we say, a malevolent streak.) Experts in the biotech field say personality in animals is the product of environment and genetics and can’t be reproduced in a lab.
My cat Katie (aka Doodle) is 18 and, though she’s still reasonably healthy, the end is in sight. That’s an event for which I am bracing myself.
The last of a group of four felines, Doodle is sweet but sour. She constantly seeks my company and attention but often looks highly annoyed by it. (We call her customary expression her “resting bitch face.”) She can be cantankerous and is extremely vocal, usually at max volume. The app MeowTalk, which records a cat’s utterances and “translates” them, informs us that Doodle is most often “saying” things like, “It’s on! I’m gonna take you down!”
So it occurs to me that cloning might be better used for improving pets that have unpleasant traits. Our former cat Squeekles was extremely aloof. Perhaps cloning would have sweetened her up a bit.
So would I clone Doodle? Not unless I desired an exercise in terror. Since the passing of our other three cats left her the uncontested queen of our home, Doodle tolerates no interlopers. She howls and chases Spartacus, our neighbor’s hapless cat, off our property whenever she sees him. I’m sure she’d be rather displeased by the presence of anyone else, even a clone of herself. Besides, I have better things to do with 35 grand.
There are also ethical issues. Animal protection advocates argue that there are more than enough unwanted cats and dogs for adoption, so spending great sums to create replacements for the deceased is hardly necessary. And then there are sales tactics that remind me of the funeral industry, which preys on the grieving by making them feel they need to cough up thousands of dollars on a box or urn for their dearly departed.
"People really want their pet that knows them and knows certain tricks and so forth," George Church, a professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School, told the BBC. "In that sense, it's a little bit taking advantage of people's grief."
I suppose if one insists on never letting go, one can always have one’s pet stuffed or freeze-dried Somehow I don’t think Doodle would be too keen on those options, either.
John Rolfe is a former senior editor for Sports Illustrated for Kids, a longtime columnist for the Poughkeepsie Journal/USA Today Network, and author of The Goose in the Bathroom: Stirring Tales of Family Life. His school bus drivin’ blog “Hellions, Mayhem and Brake Failure” is parked on his website Celestialchuckle.com (https://celestialchuckle.com) with the meter running.