Is cloning really a conundrum?
After it was announced that Barbra Streisand twice cloned Samantha, her coton de tutelar, for $50,000, I received a number of emails asking me what I thought about what she did. My answer was that I was against it and that I couldn’t think of a single good reason for doing so, surely for the dogs. Clearly, some people disagree with my views, but when I ask them why, I usually hear something incoherent or something deeply sentimental about how they loved their dog and wanted a replica, as if the dog really can be replicated in looks and behavior.
There are no guarantees that a cloned dog is going to behave or have the same personality as her or his genetic predecessor or “donor” as they’re called, but I haven’t heard much, if any, discussion about this fact. Indeed, Ms. Streisand notes, Miss Violet and Miss Scarlett, clones of Samantha, “have different personalities” and that she’s “waiting for them to get older so I can see if they have her brown eyes and her seriousness.” What will happen if they don’t?
It usually comes down to love, a feeling that also doesn’t logically lead to the decision to make more of a dog who is soon to depart or who once was. And, most people with whom I’ve spoken, have no idea about the abuse of the dogs who are used to produce the clones or the long-term problems that are likely to arise. Dogs have very rich cognitive and emotional lives and while some cloned dogs might go no to have good lives, the individuals who are used in the cloning process do not.
I wanted to learn more about how bioethicists might view cloning canine companions, so I turned to my colleague and Psychology Today writer, Dr. Jessica Pierce, who has thought about the different sides of cloning and who recently had an essay in the New York Times called “You Love Dogs? Then Don’t Clone Them.”
“In all of the reporting on cloning, we rarely hear about the collateral damage to animals from the cloning process.”
What is cloning?
In very simple terms, cloning is making a genetic copy of an animal, an identical twin but born at a later time. Within the scientific literature, the process is called somatic cell nuclear transfer.
Why has Barbra Streisand’s story about cloning Samantha, her coton de tulear made the news?
I’m not sure why it hit a nerve with people just at this point in time. It may be that Streisand is the first major celebrity to admit to cloning or it may be that we’re in a period of heightened interest in all things having to do with dogs.
What are the pros of cloning for the dogs?
I can’t think of any.
What are the downsides of cloning?
The process involves the use of multiple dogs who are “hired” (without consent and without payment) to do the reproductive work of creating a puppy. Eggs are “harvested” (so many euphemisms!) from a number of “donor” dogs (basically dogs who are owned by the lab or rented by the lab from a research animal dealer), which involves manipulation of the dogs’ hormones and a surgical procedure. Other female dogs will become the surrogates who have eggs implanted and will carry puppies to term.
Cloning also involves many embryonic failures and false starts and mistakes, lots of imperfect puppies (who knows what happens to them?), not to mention the countless dogs, mice, rats, monkeys, sheep, and other animals whose lives have been “sacrificed” to the cause of developing this technology. The Korean lab that first cloned a dog in 2005 reported that over a thousand eggs were fertilized and began to develop, only to fail. Are these “mistakes” of no importance? I don’t think so. [We also know “the cloning process works only about 33 to 40 percent of the time, which means there is strong potential for miscarriages.”]
We also don’t really know what the health implications will be for the cloned dogs, but research on other cloned mammals suggests potential long-term complications.
Cloning is part of a larger conversation about genetic manipulation of animals to serve our fancy, such as the creation of dogs with morphological features that compromise their quality of life, dogs who cannot breathe properly, or must live with joint, eye, or ear problems, and so forth.
Do you think cloning taps into some people’s concerns with their own mortality?
Yes, and perhaps even more it taps into people’s emotional bonds with their dogs and the pain many people (myself included) feel in thinking about the fact that their boon companion will someday die.
In your book Run, Spot, Run you wrote about the ethics of pet keeping. What are some of the other ethical issues surrounding the widespread habit of humans keeping animals?
Here are just a couple. (I could go on for hours…)
People will often bring home an animal about whom they know essentially nothing and just “wing it.” But for animals this can mean very compromised welfare and even early death. Researchers estimate, for example, that most amphibians and reptiles bought in pet stores won’t live beyond their first year.
The behavioral needs of animals often go unmet, even in homes where there is ample love for an animal. This is even a problem for dogs and cats, the animals we probably know best. For example, there are many dog owners who rarely give their dog the opportunity to go out into the world and just be a dog—running free, sniffing stuff, rolling in stuff, eating goose poop, peeing on stuff, and meeting other dogs.
Many pet animals are lonely. Dogs and cats and often left alone for long periods. And many small mammals such as guinea pigs and rats are kept as singletons. There is a reason these animals are classified as “social mammals.” [For more discussion on this topic please see “Dogs Want and Need Much More Than They Usually Get From Us,” “How to Give Dogs the Best Lives Possible in a Human World,” “Living With a Dog Is Good, If It’s Good for You and the Dog,” and links therein.]
Is cloning really a conundrum?
Limiting this question to the issue of cloning pets, I think it is a straightforward issue. There are multiple compelling ethical reasons not to clone, and no strong countervailing benefits to cloning. We should just say “no.” Biotech companies should not be selling the “product” or service of cloning to pet owners. Doing so causes harm to dogs, and it doesn’t do pet owners any favors either. And pet owners shouldn’t support the industry by buying a cloned dog. The cloning industry preys on our love for our dogs, and turns something beautiful into something ugly.
What do you think it will take to educate the public about why cloning is a bad idea, as you aptly put it in your New York Times essay?
The main thing is to provide some of the backstory, since this is what is generally missing from media accounts of pet cloning. In all of the reporting on cloning, we rarely hear about the collateral damage to animals from the cloning process.
Is there anything else you’d like to tell your readers?
I would just encourage people to find the beauty in each individual dog—especially those dogs lucky enough to be genetic melting pots. Anyone who is thinking about bringing a new dog into their life has an opportunity to provide a good life for a shelter or rescue dog. If you have $50,000 to spend on a dog, forget about cloning. Go to the shelter and adopt a mutt. Donate the remaining $49,900 or so dollars to the shelter and you will have made a huge positive contribution to the world.
Thank you, Jessica. I deeply appreciate your views on cloning dogs and your also noting that so many companion dogs who are truly loved, still live highly compromised and stressed lives. I hope people who think about cloning their dog will decide not to do it and give another dog a forever home. There are millions of living dogs who really need to be cherished and loved and who will be ever thankful for a loving relationship with a human who is deeply committed to giving them both the best lives possible.