Source: JacLou photo – Creative Commons License CC0
Love is hard to find, and when you do find it you want to keep it for as long as possible. In the pursuit of lasting love Barbra Streisand seems to have stirred up a hornet’s nest of criticism. The 75-year-old singer, actress and director has often been photographed in the company of her curly white Coton de Tulear dog, Samantha. This dog traveled with her nearly everywhere. In a recent interview with the entertainment magazine Variety, Streisand revealed that she now has two new dogs who are clones of her well loved Samantha.
When I first read this story I had an immediate wave of empathy with Streisand. A recent survey showed that 94% of dog owners consider their pets to be part of their family. This was certainly the case with Striesand’s dog. Samantha had been with Streisand for nearly 14 years, and her company was an integral part of the entertainer’s everyday life. People, when faced with the possibility of losing a family member, are willing to incur large medical costs to prolong their lives, and the same goes when the family member is a dog. But of course, death is inevitable so what are you to do?
I was faced with this decision not too long ago, when my Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever, Dancer, died just shy of his 16th birthday. He was a wonderful companion so his loss was hard to deal with. When I was young someone asked my father why he insisted on getting purebred dogs even though we didn’t have very much money. His answer was “If you find the perfect dog for you, and he’s purebred, then you can have that dog forever.” In other words, the characteristics and behaviors of purebred dogs are predictable and similar enough so that you can replace a deceased dog with another who will have many of the same desired characteristics that you had in the pet that you loved and lost. So I ultimately got a new puppy of the same breed as Dancer. This pup, Ranger, is not Dancer, but he is a close enough match to fill that emotional gap in my life.
If you are a well-to-do entertainer, like Barbra Streisand, then you can afford the $50,000 that it costs to clone your companion through a company like ViaGen Pets, based in Texas. In the case of Samantha’s clones, DNA was taken from her mouth and her belly. The cloning process involves taking the egg cells (ova) from another dog, removing that dog’s original DNA and inserting the DNA from the donor dog. Those egg cells are re-implanted into a female dog who serves as a surrogate mother. After roughly 60 days, with a little bit of luck, the surrogate mother gives birth to one or more pups which have the same DNA as the dog that you wanted to clone.
There are several important points to note about this process. Cloning a dog does not extend the life of the original dog. It’s just that dogs delivered by cloning have the same genes as their donor and will be the closest possible match to that cherished animal. The best way to think of this is that the cloning process gives you an identical twin, except that it is born at a much later date.
In this case the cloning worked and healthy pups were born. The resulting puppies did look like Samantha, and they are so similar to each other that Streisand had to put a red collar on one and a purple collar on the other so that she could tell them apart. In fact it was because of the collar colors that the dogs received their names — Miss Scarlett and Miss Violet.
However the clones are not the same dog as the original. Although they may look similar to their predecessor, the personality of each dog is shaped by its environment, its experiences, and the actions and interactions of the person who owns and lives with the dog. Since your house may be different from when you had that first dog, your lifestyle may differ, you are older, and what goes on in your world has changed over time, your cloned dog will also be different from the original. Nonetheless the clone is likely to be similar enough to the original to provide a continuity of emotional feelings and to avoid the feeling that somehow or another your family has been broken and is incomplete.
What I suppose surprised me the most was the firestorm of criticism of Streisand which emerged online, apparently spearheaded by the animal rights organization PETA. Her online detractors claimed that her act of cloning her dog was “despicable”, “a terrible example” and “selfish and unfeeling”.
Statements from PETA and its representatives have appeared on a number of different media platforms. For example PETA released a statement on their Twitter account which read “when you consider that millions of wonderful adoptable dogs are languishing in animal shelters every year or dying in terrifying ways when abandoned, you realize that cloning adds to the homeless-animal population crisis.” The argument which PETA tries to spin out is that for every dog which is cloned another abandoned dog will die. This makes Barbra Streisand an evil being who is killing helpless dogs by her self-indulgent and self-centered actions.
Of course PETA’s argument is total nonsense. It is equivalent to saying that nobody living in an affluent nation should have their own biological children. This is because for every child that a couple gives birth to, another orphaned child in poor circumstances will face the threat of an awful death due to the fact that they are not adopted by those selfish people who want their own offspring.
As a psychologist I wonder about the possibility that there is something about cloning which seems to cast a negative pallor on attempts to keep a dog with certain desired characteristics. Perhaps all of those science fiction movies involving clones being used for evil is responsible for our feelings that there is something immoral about the process. If Samantha had been bred normally it would have been an alternative way to pass on her genes and her offspring would have had many of her characteristics (although they would not be a perfect match to their mother). If Streisand had kept two pups from a litter conceived by Samantha I doubt that she would have been criticized, even though at some level that might also be viewed as another way to keep her pet’s essence alive by making sure that her DNA survives. Of course the puppies would not be Samantha, just her children, however her clones are not Samantha, just her twins.
Barbra Streisand seems to recognize these facts. She summarized her feelings when she explained to the New York Times “You can clone the look of the dog, but you can’t clone the soul. Still every time I look at their faces, I think of my Samantha… and smile.”
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