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The controversial and costly procedure of pet cloning |  to know

The controversial and costly procedure of pet cloning | to know

When John Mendola’s beloved dog was diagnosed with cancer, he decided to clone it.

Mendola is a retired New York City police officer. He was working at a police station on Long Island in 2006 when someone handed over a puppy he found on the street.

“The dog was twitching, and you couldn’t even brush her…and her teeth were bad, but she was so adorable and she was so grateful,” he says.

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At the end of the shift, Mendola told his colleagues that there was no need to take the white and brown animal to a shelter: he would take it home. “It was the best thing I’ve done in my life,” says the 52-year-old.

The dog, a hybrid called the Shih Apso, loved children and play. She named Mindola a princess, after several heroines of Disney animated films.

Ten years later, in 2016, Mendola received the news that the princess had been diagnosed with cancer. Upon learning of the diagnosis, immediately contact a Texas-based company called Viagen Pets and Equine, which is the first and only American company to offer commercial cloning of dogs and cats.

Mindola says he learned about the lawsuit after watching a South Korean documentary on the subject. The Asian country is considered a pioneer in the region and produced the first cloned dog in 2005.

The puppies were genetically identical to the princess. Mendola named them Ariel and Jasmine, also in honor of the Disney films.

“The spots, the fur, everything is more or less the same, even the gestures,” he says. “You know how dogs sometimes get up and shake their whole bodies? They both do it at the same time, like the princess did.”

Pet cloning is controversial, but it is growing and becoming more and more popular despite its high cost.

Viagen says it now clones “more and more pets every year” and has cloned “hundreds” since it started its services in 2015.

The company charges $50,000 ($230,000) to clone dogs, $30,000 ($140,000) for cats and $85,000 ($400,000) for horses.

The cloning process begins in the lab – Image: GETTY IMAGES/BBC

Of course, this cost is out of reach for the vast majority, but many celebrities have revealed in recent years that they cloned their dogs or planned to do so.

In 2018, singer Barbra Streisand revealed that she used Viagen to clone two puppies from her dog Samantha.

That same year, the British newspaper The Sun reported that music mogul and reality TV judge Simon Cowell was a “100% clone” of three Yorkshire Terriers.

There are many specific cloning techniques, but usually a cell nucleus from the animal to be cloned is injected into a donor egg whose genetic material has been removed.

The egg is then cultured in a laboratory until it becomes an embryo, and the embryo is then implanted into the uterus of a surrogate mother who gives birth to a calf.

Barbra Streisand with her dog Samantha, 2006 – Photo: Getty Images / BBC

Blake Russell, president of Viagen, says the genetic material of an animal to be cloned can be stored almost indefinitely before the cloning process. This is due to the use of very low temperatures for freezing or cryopreservation.

“A cloned pet is, quite simply, an identical genetic twin, separated by years, decades, maybe centuries,” he adds.

His company says it is “committed to the health and well-being of every dog ​​and cat we handle” and adheres to all US regulations.

Diseases and low success rate

However, organizations that campaign for animal welfare have raised concerns about the procedure.

Horse cloning photographer Blake Russell says genetic material can be safely stored for many years – Image: BLAKE RUSSELL/BBC

There are, for example, many scientific studies that indicate that clones are more susceptible to disease.

Other critics also point to the industry’s high failure rate: there are a large number of clones that are not born healthy.

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A 2018 report from Columbia University in New York indicated that the average cloning success rate is only 20%. This means that multiple alternatives are needed to allow multiple attempts.

Penny Hawkins, animal welfare expert for the British Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, says the process of retrieving female eggs for donation and preparing for surrogacy can be agonizing and distressing.

Behavior cannot be reproduced

She also explains that the cloned animal will not be an exact copy of the original pet, especially when it comes to behaviour.

“An animal has much more than its DNA, and clones will inevitably have different experiences in life, resulting in animals with different personalities.”

According to an employee of Viagen last year, 25% of an animal’s personality comes from its upbringing.

“We recommend that anyone looking for a new pet to become part of their family adopt one of the thousands of animals at home-seeking rescue centers,” Hawkins says.

Elisa Allen, director of the animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta), also urges people to adopt rescued animals rather than create clones.

“The characters, quirks, and essence of the animals simply cannot be replicated,” she explains.

“And when you consider that millions of wonderful, adoptable dogs and cats languish in animal shelters each year or die horrific deaths after being abandoned, you realize that cloning adds to the crisis of homeless animal overpopulation.”

“PETA encourages anyone who wants to bring another pet into their life for adoption from a local shelter, rather than encouraging cloning, which is a cruel way to make money.”

Geneticist Andrew Hessel says pet cloning raises very few ethical concerns if done responsibly.

He says, “One might say, ‘Why clone animals when all these other animals are available for adoption?'” “However, you can use the same argument with children.”

“Why would you have a child when all these children are available for adoption? Pets also become family members.”

Back on Long Island, Mendola says Ariel and Jasmine are healthy and happy.

Before the original princess died, she adopted another rescue dog named Baby. “When I brought the new puppies home, Pepe took them right away,” he says.

“He missed the princess. He smelled them and was happy. They are princesses.”

Bibi died unexpectedly this year, but Mendola was already prepared: he had a portion of his genetic material stored for possible future cloning.

Additional reporting by Will Smile, New Economy Series Editor.