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Toying with your affections: Cute, cuddly, and cheaper than real dog clones


It’s a cute and cuddly little idea.

So why does it give me horror-show-like chills?

I was thumbing through the latest issue of The Bark magazine –  print version — when I came to a page devoted to spotlighting new products, including “Cuddle Clones, one of a kind plush animals made to look just like your dog! Capture the essence of your dog in this adorable product…”

Having written a book on dog cloning — the kind that takes place in a laboratory, with pet owners paying $100,000 or more to get genetic duplicates of their dogs – Cuddle Clones struck me as far less expensive, less intrusive and much more innocent way to have your pet re-created. Yet  the concept was still mildly troubling. Leave it to me to find the ominous in something as harmless as a plush toy.

And then to write about it, as if, behind the toy, there is some deeper meaning to be unearthed.

I think, as with real cloning, there may be — in regards to what it says about the essence of dog, and the essence of us.

For starters, you’re not going to recapture the essence of your dog in a stuffed animal, or by stuffing him, or by cloning him.

I’d even go so far to say that, even the most expert of breeders, even if they do manage to ensure many of the same traits are passed from one generation to the next, can’t recapture “essence” — a fuzzy term that, in this case, may be most synonymous with “personality” or ”soul.”

One can breed for looks and traits, but the essence of your dog — what makes him him — is uncapturable. Part of the reason for that, I think, is that what makes him him is all that he has experienced, including, and perhaps in largest part, you.

With cloning — real cloning — I arrived at the point where I viewed it as a selfish pursuit, most popular among wealthy and stubborn people who refuse to to accept that the rules of nature apply to them and their dogs. And I wondered whether, as much as having a dog re-created from a single cell might seem an homage to the original, it’s really an insult, like telling your dog, “You’re instantly replaceable; I can quite easily, if I pay enough, have another you fashioned in a laboratory.”

In reality, the clone, while a living, breathing genetic duplicate, is not the original dog. Though some customers believe otherwise, the original dog’s soul does not occupy it anymore than it would a freeze-dried version of his corpse — another alternative for those who insist on keeping a physical, though unmoving, version of their dog around the house.

Cuddle Clones, being toys, are far less creepy — and if it weren’t for the name I’d probably have no problem with the product.  A plush toy that roughly replicates your living or dead pet is not all that nefarious. And the plush toy company, unlike the real cloning companies, hasn’t directed its marketing strictly at bereaved, or soon-to-be-bereaved pet owners.

That does come up, however, in the “Top 10″ reasons the company gives for buying a Cuddle Clone. (Expect to pay $300, or, for a life-sized version, as much as $850, depending on weight.)

Those reasons, according to the Cuddle Clones website, include:

 ”Your pet is so cute or unique looking that you must clone him or her immediately.”

“Your pet has passed away and you miss hugging him or her.”

“Your daughter can’t bear to leave her best friend behind when she leaves for college or the military.”

“You lost the pet custody battle in a breakup.”

“You’ve wanted to scientifically clone your pet for some time now but can’t quite afford the $50,000 price tag.”

“Cuddle Clones can go places real pets can’t go (work, vacation, the grocery store, nursing home).”

Cuddle Clones aren’t going to wag their tails (at least not yet), or greet you at the front door. For that you’d require a real clone, though we’d advise against it, even if you do have more money than you know what to do with.

Those are manufactured in South Korea, and the price has dropped from the $150,000 the earliest customers were charged to around $100,000.

(How dog cloning came to be, how it was marketed, and the experiences of the first pet owning customers are detailed in my book, “DOG, INC.: How a Collection of Visionaries, Rebels, Eccentrics and Their Pets Launched the Commerical Dog Cloning Industry.”)

Only one South Korean lab is still offering cloning to pet owners, and it’s working on broadening its customer base — mostly American — by holding a contest in England that will reward a discounted cloning to the person who has the most “special and inspiring” reason for cloning their dog. Contestants are invited to submit essays, photos and videos, and the winner will get a 70 percent discount on the $100,000 price.

It’s sponsored by Sooam Biotech Research Foundation, which is headed by Hwang Woo Suk, the former Seoul National University veterinarian who headed the team that produced the world’s first cloned dog, Snuppy. Hwang also claimed to have cloned a line of human embryos, but he was fired after those claims turned out to be fraudulent.

After starting his own lab, Hwang teamed up with an American company that held an online auction for six dog clonings and an essay contest in which a free cloning was awarded to a man who said his former police dog found the last survivor of 9-11.

As dog cloning hit the marketplace — actually doing so before dog had even been cloned — some of those who would become the first recipients of clones were chosen at least in part because of their heartwarming stories, which served to put a warmer, fuzzier face on the cold science of cloning.

Small stuffed dogs, all identical, were handed out as a promotional tool by one of the labs. Customers shared their stories, sometimes in exchange for a discount, and marveled at how much their clones resembled the originals.  Then there were the best ambassadors of all — the puppies. Whatever fears and concerns surrounded cloning — from animal welfare issues, to where it will all lead, to the utter lack of government regulation, especially in South Korea — images of nursing and frolicking puppies had a way of pushing them aside.

Cuddle Clones — even just the marriage of those two words — could similarly, if unintentionally, serve to make real cloning more palatable to a public that may not know that dog cloning isn’t cute at all.

It involves the use of numerous dogs for egg harvesting. After the cells of the donor dog are merged with those and — with help from an electric jolt – begin dividing, more dogs yet are needed to serve as surrogates. More than 1,000 egg cells were harvested to clone the first dog. While the process has grown far more efficient, multiple attempts are still required to ensure an exact lookalike is born — into a world where dogs are routinely put down because of overpopulation.

The American company selling clonings — all carried out by Sooam – later shut down for reasons that included concerns about whether proper animal welfare protocols were being followed in the South Korean labs. RNL Bio, the company that cloned the first dog for a customer, has stepped away from dog cloning, citing negative public opinion as one factor.

But canine clones are still being churned out at Sooam, and the price — once $150,000 a shot — is continuing to drop, meaning more people will be able to afford a laboratory-produced replica of their dog.

For those who can’t, there are Cuddle Clones – soft and huggable plushies, filled with synthetic fabrics, that seem to send the message that clones are adorable.

And clones may be just that  – both the real ones and the stuffed ones.

Dog cloning, though, when it comes to the process, is not so pretty, not so heartwarming, and not so cuddly.

You  might even say – though it would be too late — that it’s nothing to toy with.

(Photos: Top three photos courtesy of Cuddle Clones, bottom two photos, of dogs being cloned at Sooam, by John Woestendiek)

Comments

Comment from Jen Brighton
Time May 23, 2013 at 11:02 am

Mr. Woestendiek, I recently read Dog, Inc., which was fascinating and horrifying. But the good part is that it led me to one of my new favorite blogs (yours). I will not be cloning any of my critters, even if I could afford it. And the part where the parents wanted to clone their deceased child was beyond belief. It is mind boggling that anyone would even want to try to replicate a beloved pet (or human). And especially with so many dying in shelters. That’s the joy of our pets, they are all so different and unique.

I do like the idea of a stuffed animal likeness, but I can see where, as the author of Dog, Inc., it could creep you out a bit. Thanks also for updating where cloning currently is currently with respect to the public.

Comment from vida
Time May 23, 2013 at 5:32 pm

Cloning is…creepy. Even leaving aside the ethical issues. When I have the sorrow of losing a beloved companion animal I have always found the best way to recapture the happiness and love I knew with them is to adopt another animal in need. They never replace the one who passed but they are lovable in their own unique way, every one of them.

Comment from Jen Brighton
Time May 23, 2013 at 6:58 pm

Well, said, Vida. After my first ever dog died, I got so depressed that within 2 months I had adopted my Inca, a 10-wk-old street pup, from a no-kill facility. I quickly found that although the pain remained of losing my 14-yr-old dog, Inca helped me to realize exactly what you pointed out.

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