Science/Tech

Pet Theory

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The Missyplicity Project "seeks to clone a dog"--specifically, a 12-year-old border collie/huskie mix named Missy--"for the first time in history." The project's Web site (www.missyplicity.com) anticipates your reaction with a link labeled "Is This a Joke?"

Given the story in The New York Times, I'm pretty sure it isn't, but I click through to the answer anyway: "We are quite serious and fully intend to see this project through to completion," says the research team, headed by Mark Westhusin, a professor at Texas A&M's College of Veterinary Medicine.

Missy's owners are paying for the $2.3 million project. Westhusin and his colleagues, who have already collected a tissue sample from Missy, say they may have results in a couple of years.

The researchers cite several possible applications for their work, including dog contraception, preservation of endangered canine species, and replication of animals that have proven suitable for training as seeing-eye or search-and rescue dogs. But their Web site's Missy wallpaper, animated Missy logo, Missy photographs, Missy video clips, and heart-warming Missy stories play up the aspect of the project that is most likely to intrigue the general public: the attempt to make a copy of a "beloved pet" who is "getting on in years."

The experts quoted by the Times pooh-poohed the idea. Given the role that environment plays in shaping behavior, they said, there's no guarantee that a genetic replica will be as lovable as the original. "A small difference in behavior makes no difference for a mouse," said University of Pennsylvania bioethicist Arthur Caplan, "but it makes all the difference for Fluffy and Fido."

Another question springs to mind: $2.3 million for a dog? Missy's owners have chosen to remain anonymous, which suggests they may be a little embarrassed about going to such lengths.

Then again, maybe not. This is not the first time people have tried to achieve immortality for Fluffy or Fido. Cryonics enthusiasts, who arrange to be frozen after death in the hope that technology will be sufficiently advanced one day to revive them, have been known to take their pets along.

Touring a cryonics facility several years ago, I made the mistake of wondering aloud why someone would spend thousands of dollars to keep his old pet frozen when he could just buy a new one upon revival. My guide, whose dog was lying in a vat of liquid nitrogen a few feet away, bristled at the suggestion.

"I love my dog," he said. "That was my childhood dog. That dog spent a lot of time with me. I thought the world of her. I thought more of her than I do of a lot of people."

Though I was probably one of the people he had in mind, I do understand the sentiment. It's easy to idealize pets, viewing them as discriminating beings when they display affection and as furry automatons, incapable of evil motives, when they misbehave.

We deny pets their freedom yet prize their loyalty, denigrate their intelligence yet take pride in it, discount their emotional capacity yet luxuriate in their unconditional positive regard. We feel very good when we are kind to them and only a little bad when we are not.

With all this going for them, pets are quite a bargain. Usually.

A few years ago, my cat Miles suddenly took ill. He lost his appetite and developed diarrhea. He would sit on the mantel in the living room, scratching himself vigorously and howling. He was getting thin, and his long, black fur was coming out in clumps. At night he would sit at the head of the bed and stare at me. It was pitiful.

After various inconclusive tests, the veterinarian started speculating that Miles might have cancer, and she urged chemotherapy. For a cat.

Since Miles did not carry health insurance, the vet was expecting me to lay out thousands of dollars so my cat could live another year or so. I kept waiting for the vastly cheaper alternative, the one Jack Kevorkian would suggest if he were a veterinarian, but it was never offered.

"Look," I finally said. "I'm very fond of him, but he's not my grandmother." The vet seemed shocked.

In the end, Miles recovered spontaneously from whatever was ailing him. He turned 10 a few weeks ago.

That's pretty old for a cat. Maybe I should start saving a tissue sample.