"Are they all related?" a woman asks as she watches three puppies romp around Eastwood Park, a little slice of doggy heaven in Mill Valley, California. One of the pups, Mira, is notably larger than the other two, Chingu and Sarang, but they all share similar markings: white snouts and chests, darker fur on their backs and crowns.
"They're clones," Lou Hawthorne replies. The woman smiles as if Hawthorne's joking, but he's telling the truth; all three puppies were created at a commercial animal laboratory in Korea using tissue collected in the late 1990s from Missy, a beloved mixed breed that belonged to Hawthorne's mother and died in 2002. Part collie, part husky, part who-knowswhat, these rambunctious mutts are the most expensive pets on the planet, the end result of a 10-year project that has cost approximately $25 million. In May 2008, Hawthorne announced that his biotech firm, BioArts International, plans to offer five pet owners a chance to genetically Xerox their canine companions. Aspiring clone owners would participate in a series of online auctions, and the bidding would start at $100,000.
Not everyone was impressed. The Humane Society of the United States and the American Anti-Vivisection Society (AAVS) gave the disobedient bio-entrepreneur a stern swat in the form of a jointly issued report titled "Buyer Beware: Pet Cloning is NOT for Pet Lovers." Cloning foes characterize the practice as cruel, manipulative, and pointless, a domain of hucksters who exploit grieving pet widows and sell eternity by proxy through bad science and ostensibly immortal schnauzers.
"No one knows what goes on in these cloning labs," says Nina Mak, a research analyst at the AAVS. "No one knows how many animals are used and what happens to those animals. There's no assurance about the state of their welfare and their treatment and care. All of that happens without any oversight." Neil Trent, executive director of the Marin Humane Society, has called for "legislative intervention to regulate this dubious activity."
Is pet cloning really so strange and untenable? In addition to voicing concerns about animal welfare, those who oppose it take issue with its metaphorical implications. "This idea that you can take an animal and duplicate it whenever you want-it treats animals as objects that can be manufactured," says Mak.
But canine fabrication is not a new idea. There weren't any trendy "designer" hybrids like puggles or schnoodles on Noah's ark, nor even any certified purebreds like Boston terriers or French bulldogs. As their not-exactly-biblical names suggest, these dogs are modern inventions, painstakingly crafted by uncompromising artisans following detailed blueprints, a.k.a. "breed standards," drafted by 19th-century canine eugenicists. And our efforts to make dogs more serviceable, more aesthetically appealing, and more fun to be around are much older than that. For some 15,000 years now, man has been artificially shaping his best friend to serve human ends. In fact, it's their very malleability that makes dogs dogs. If it weren't so easy to retool them to exacting specifications, they'd still be wolves.
Cloning represents the next step in a process that's been going on since the late Paleolithic era, one that opens up new possibilities for pet lovers. "If you love golden retrievers, you can go to a conventional breeder and get a very similar set of genetics again," says Hawthorne. "But if you have a spayed or neutered mixed-breed animal, there's no other way to get that same configuration of genetics. You can guess and breed what you think to be the source breed, but you'll never get the same configuration."
In July four anonymous pet owners submitted winning bids in the BioArts clone auctions. The prices they paid ranged from $140,000 to $170,000. For that fee, Hawthorne says, they'll get a puppy that is guaranteed to have "a very high degree of physical resemblance" to their original pet. Cloning isn't doggy reincarnation, but Hawthorne says it's more than just similar markings. "I thought it was going to be about look," he says of his first clone, "and maybe someday behavioral similarity. But it's a much more visceral experience than that-the feel, the smell. When they first handed me Mira in Korea, you could see the look of genuine astonishment on my face."
As the AAVS suggests, there are aspects of cloning that are less camera-friendly. To clone a dog, you need multiple lab animals. Some serve as sources for ova, others are used as surrogates to carry the embryos that scientists create by enucleating an egg and fusing it with cells from the dog being cloned. All those animals, according to the Humane Society/AAVS anti-cloning report, are "subjected to painful hormone treatments and invasive surgeries."
Hawthorne, who says he and his associates will soon be publishing a paper detailing the advances they've made in "a major scientific journal," disputes that characterization, claiming that the procedures for ova flushing and embryo transfer take only five minutes and require an incision between a half-inch and an inch long. The animals are sedated during the process, he says, and the procedures are less invasive than a spay-a procedure the Humane Society and the AAVS endorse without protesting the pain involved. It takes approximately eight laboratory dogs to produce one clone; four supply theova, and four act as surrogates. "For every four embryo transfers we do, we get a clone," says Hawthorne. "And that rate is going up very quickly." BioArts has a provision in its contract with the cloning lab that requires the latter to either care for the canine egg donors and surrogates in perpetuity or put them up for adoption. In other words, euthanasia is not an option.
That's not to say Pixar is likely to set its next heart-warming animal pic in a pet cloning lab. But conventional breeding operations, be they high-volume puppy mills, semi-pro backyard setups, or even reputable licensed breeders, aren't default havens of cuddliness either. In all these scenarios, there are aspects most pet owners would probably prefer not to acknowledge: inhumane confinement, invasive artificial insemination techniques, Cesarean sections, birth defects, and high mortality rates.
What distinguishes cloning from these other approaches is the extremely high motivation of the buyers. They're not interested in a Chihuahua because they saw Paris Hilton's and now they want a cute little accessory that poops, too. They don't want a Dalmation because they think it would go well with the living room. Everyone's heard stories about pet breeders who make buyers jump through hoops like trained seals in an effort to prove they can provide a suitable home for the breeder's progeny, but Hawthorne's customers have already passed a test more stringent than even the most demanding breeder could devise: They've lived with a dog very much like the one they're purchasing. They loved it so much they're willing to spend six figures to obtain a facsimile.
"When you're talking about buying a specific breed, it's a class of characteristics that you're looking for," says AAVS's Nina Mak. "But you're not pinpointing an exact individual. You're not saying, 'I know exactly what kind of animal I want. I'm going to pick it out and pay whatever it costs to do that.' "
Mak says this disapprovingly, and certainly it's self-indulgent to insist there's only one particular array of doggy DNA on the planet that can make you truly happy. But this a selfish age we live in, an age where we expect to share at least 29 levels of compatibility with potential spouses and at least double that many for creatures whose feces we have to lug around in little plastic bags.
Right now, alas, only the very rich can afford pet cloning. But imagine a future where cloning has become mainstream, where, thanks to successive generations of careful selection, every pet owner is so perfectly matched to his four-legged companion he can't stop exclaiming how much he loves it, how it's the bestestwestest puppy ever, yes it is, yes it is, and does it want another Milk Bone? For the rest of us, it's going to be hell on earth. For the dogs, it's going to be as if every single one of them were Leona Helmsley's favorite Maltese bitch.