Originally published in U.S.News & World Report, 3/11/02.

Cover Story 3/11/02

The kitten-cloning success opens the possibility of customizing animals


At first, Eduardo Kac wanted a dog. A green, glowing dog. The Chicago-based artist knew that scientists had already used genetic tools to insert a fluorescent protein into lab mice. Kac figured he'd do the same thing in man's best friend, and keep the dog as a family pet. In the end, he had to settle for a green, glowing rabbit.

Kac wanted to exhibit the rabbit, which he named Alba, in an art show and then take her home. But the director of the French lab that produced Alba nixed the idea, triggering a high-profile flap. "I have never thought of Alba as an art object in the sense that one would create a sculpture or a painting," says Kac, who still hopes to take her home from the lab. "It's not about making an object. I invent situations." How will it change people, Kac wonders, if they can conceive of a fantastic animal, design it in the lab, and then hold it in their arms? "It's very easy to fear what you don't know," he explains. But the moment that a person gazes into Alba's green eyes, she stops being Frankenrabbit and becomes an adorable little bunny.

Pet lovers may soon get to experience Kac's artistic "situation" firsthand. Scientists recently created a cloned cat named cc, and they're hard at work on cloning dogs. Around 120 million cats and dogs live in homes across the United States, and surveys suggest that 1 in 10 people would clone a pet. Cloning techniques also make it easier to genetically alter animals–meaning Kac may someday get his glowing puppy. One company already has set out to make allergen-free cats, and one can imagine flea-repellent pets or attack dogs with superaggressive genes. Designer pets could tap into a huge market: Americans spent around $28.5 billion on their animals last year alone.

Love and death. This brave new world for pets raises profound moral and ethical questions. What will cloned pets do to beliefs about death? Will they bring human cloning closer to reality? If cloned pets act like their progenitors, will they convince people that nature trumps nurture? The first fuzzy kitten clone, however, seems blissfully unaware of the consternation she has created. Cc likes to play, eat treats, and take catnaps. She's not at all unusual–except for the fact that she's a later-born identical twin of an adult cat named Rainbow.

Mark Westhusin at Texas A&M University and his colleagues created cc by taking cells from Rainbow and fusing them with unfertilized cat eggs that had been emptied of their own genetic material. The researchers then implanted the resulting embryos into surrogate mothers. After many attempts, cc finally came mewling into the world. "We'll probably just keep her here and just watch her, study her," says Westhusin. Cc will either live out her life in the lab or perhaps one day be adopted by one of the scientists.

Since Dolly the sheep's birth in 1996, scientists have cloned other species, including cattle, mice, goats, and pigs. But while most people have known about this work, it all seemed rather abstract. Little cc has brought the issue home: People realize that they could soon live with, and love, a clone of their own.

It turns out that some people want this very, very much. "I'm 56. I've had a lot of pets. Skeet is just an absolutely different type of animal," says Ira Lapides of Gatlinburg, Tenn., describing his beloved mutt. "He's got a Ph.D. in being a dog, a real dog, what a dog is supposed to be." Skeet is 16, and Lapides recently started thinking about his friend's inevitable demise. He'd heard about cloning, and so he contacted a company named–not too subtly–Lazaron BioTechnologies.

Lapides realizes that the clone won't have Skeet's formative experiences, like eight months of feral living and a horrible incident that left him severely burned. And he knows that "there will never be another Skeet." But someday he wants a "Skeet Two." So he made the phone calls.

Lazaron sent a tissue collection kit to Skeet's vet, who took a skin biopsy about the size of a pencil eraser and sent it back. The company then grew several million cells in a lab dish and preserved them in liquid nitrogen. The two other companies that offer DNA banking, PerPETuate and Genetic Savings & Clone, follow similar procedures. It costs around $1,000 for processing and $100 a year for storage. Hundreds of people have already signed up, and the phones have been ringing off the hook since cc's birth.

PerPETuate has worked on cat cloning with Advanced Cell Technology (known for its work on cloning human cells). Indeed, ACT has actually cloned cat embryos, but so far no cloned kittens. Only Genetic Savings & Clone will offer this service to clients in the near future, as both this company and the "CopyCat" project that created cc began as offshoots of "the Missiplicity Project." This was a multimillion-dollar effort to reproduce a dog named Missy, owned by millionaire John Sperling, who founded the Web-based University of Phoenix. The company plans to start cloning cats for a few clients later this year, and it won't come cheap–perhaps six figures. But costs for pets could quickly drop even lower than the current going rate for cloned cows, about $20,000.

New market. "We were kind of curious about the kind of people that would be interested in this," says Richard Denniston of Louisiana State University, who cofounded Lazaron. He initially expected interest from fancy-cat and dog breeders. But breeders say they want to constantly work toward perfection, not copy last year's Best in Show. The typical client for these companies is someone who–like Lapides or Sperling–has a mixed breed he would like to approximate. Owners of purebreds can easily get a genetically similar pet, but mutt owners don't have that option.

Unlike Sperling, Denniston had no interest in cloning a specific animal. He came up with Lazaron as a class project in an M.B.A. program. But in late 1998, his Scottish terrier developed a brain tumor and had to be put down. Suddenly, Denniston's views changed. "Later that day, I said, 'Hey, let me go get some cells,' " he recalls. "As I was growing those cells, I said, 'This is kind of neat, comforting.' " Only then did Denniston decide to go forward with the company, whose Web site promises to "save your animal's genetic life."

Many potential clients will skim over the key word: genetic. Pet-cloning companies know they stand accused of preying on the grief-stricken, and they tread this ground carefully. "Genetic Savings & Clone encounters a certain number of prospective clients who are motivated to resurrect their beloved pet," says spokesman Ben Carlson. "When it becomes evident that that's someone's motivation, we gently decline their business and steer them towards grief counseling."

But Lori Gruen, an ethicist at Wesleyan University, isn't quite convinced. Gruen visited Genetic Savings & Clone last year, at the invitation of CEO Lou Hawthorne, and came away impressed with his sincere desire to address ethical issues. The dogs and cats that donate eggs and act as surrogate mothers for cloned embryos, for example, are adopted into loving homes. Still, Gruen sees the exploitation of grief as a serious problem. "When I first met them, I had a dog who was dying. They said, 'Oh, we'll give you a discount.' I said, 'Oh no, you won't.' I never for a second thought that I was going to have him cloned," remembers Gruen. "You are taking advantage of people who intellectually may know they're not getting their animal back but emotionally they think they're getting their animal back."

That seems to be the case for Sandra Redell and Ralph Fisher of La Grange, Texas, who had a white steer named Chance cloned by Westhusin. They understand that Chance died. But Redell has said things like "the spooky thing is that he does a lot of the same things he did the first time," and Fisher has said how happy they are to have their beloved friend "back."

Remembering Homer. Richard Friedman, a Cornell University psychiatrist in New York City, doesn't think the bond of love and friendship with a pet can simply be transferred to a clone. He believes that the important thing is not the genes but the time spent together and the shared experiences. That's why, after checking out the cloning companies' Web sites, he decided not to bank DNA from his dear friend Homer, a dog he had for nine years. Just before Homer died, Friedman felt a strong desire to do something, to make that death not happen. But in the end he rejected cloning: "For me, it's a sense of how singular he was. It would have been a mockery to have had him cloned."

If Friedman ever does get another pet, he says it will have to be a completely different animal. A dog that's too similar would be "torture, a reminder of what you lost." Not everyone agrees. Already, pet owners sometimes try to replace a loved one. "If someone calls me up and wants a particular sex and color, I get leery," says Gale Thomas-Goodman, a Manx cat breeder in New Jersey. "It's not the same cat. Personality is what's important."

Cc proved that cloning won't always produce an animal that looks the same–she has slightly different markings from Rainbow, showing that random factors like the womb environment affect fur color. But some people still believe cloning can copy that all-important personality, or at least come awfully close. "I really believe that the dog would be so much like Sara it would be frightening," says Nanci Little of Miami, who has stored DNA from a sweet little mutt who has appeared in movies and commercials. "I believe genetics are a main, major part." Advanced Cell Technology has tried to clone Paul Rasky's cat, Nikita. Rasky thinks a clone "in some ways, really is the animal that passed. It really is. It's the same biological material, at least at the DNA level."

It's that kind of thinking that worries some ethicists. "One of the huge issues I see that kind of lurks in the background is a kind of genetic determinism," says ethicist Karen Lebacqz of the Pacific School of Religion, referring to the notion that genes control one's fate. While human identical twins often share many similarities, they're not absolutely identical. Friedman, when he considered cloning Homer, thought about the fact that in high school he knew twins who had completely different personalities.

Would it be different for dogs and cats? Behavioral geneticists say they're not sure. "How similar is similar?" asks Sam Gosling, a psychology researcher at the University of Texas-Austin. He has reviewed what literature exists on personality in animals and says that genetics does influence personality, although exactly how much isn't known. No one has been able to quantify it by studying dog or cat twins. Cloning, Gosling points out, gives behavioral geneticists a new tool to do just that.

In the meantime, they could look to armadillos. Nine-banded armadillos routinely have litters of four genetically identical pups. Suzanne McPhee, an amateur animal behaviorist who has raised several litters of armadillos, says that pups in a litter can look slightly different and have distinct personalities. "They all have their own little quirks." One armadillo, for example, still purrs as an adult, while its littermates gave up purring after infancy.

So a cloned pet probably wouldn't have exactly the same appearance or personality, unlike the scenario envisioned by The 6th Day. In this sci-fi movie, a pet-cloning store at the local mall–RePet–can provide a perfect copy in just a few hours. Arnold Schwarzenegger's character finds pet clones creepy ("I'm not going to have some freak of science sleep in my daughter's bed!"), but his wife clones their dead dog anyway, so their daughter won't know he died. Would parents really ever do this? Donna Schuurman, of the Dougy Center for Grieving Children in Portland, Ore., says a pet's death can help children learn about grief, but parents often try to spare their children pain. "One of the dangers of cloning a pet for a child is simply to say, 'Here, let's replace this,' as if you don't grieve for the loss. How does that translate when Dad dies?"

Indeed. At least one person has already sought out cloning, hoping to give his dead son's genes another chance at life. As the Senate prepares to debate a human-cloning ban, some ethicists wonder whether pet cloning will soften people up to human cloning. "This is the beginning of getting used to the idea of cloning things that we're close to," says Jeffrey Kahn, a bioethicist at the University of Minnesota. Gruen, however, doesn't see a slippery slope. "I don't think that today we'll clone cats, tomorrow we'll clone children."

Gruen and others raise other ethical concerns: Why clone pets when millions of cats and dogs die for lack of homes? Is it right to spend a lot of money to re-create one animal? And what about the clones' health risks? Cc seems healthy now, but Dolly has arthritis at a young age, and cloned mice seem to have a shortened life span. Just last week, scientists reported that cloned mice are more likely to develop obesity in adulthood. Peter Singer, an ethicist at Princeton University and a leading figure in the animal rights movement, says he can't see much justification for this research. If it's mainly to clone pets, "basically I think that's pretty silly."

But cloning cats and dogs could offer compelling benefits, others say. Betsy Dresser of the Audubon Nature Institute in New Orleans has a cat-cloning project underway to help save threatened species like the rusty-spotted cat of Sri Lanka. "If we don't do something to preserve that species, we're just going to lose it," she says. "Why not use cloning to bring the numbers back? The alternative is extinction." Cloning might also produce ideal dogs for police work or helping the disabled. Steve Burkman of Guide Dogs of America in Sylmar, Calif., says his organization breeds dogs for the right temperament, but it's an inexact science. When they get one perfect dog, he'll often jokingly tell his breeders, "OK, I'll take 10 of those." Cloning might make that possible.

Tinkering with traits. Cloning could also make those dogs even better, by helping scientists tinker with their traits. Already, one company, called Transgenic Pets, aims to use cloning to create an allergen-free cat. David Avner of Liverpool, N.Y., came up with the idea several years ago because he and his wife, Jackie, both have allergies. They plan to make cats without a key allergy-provoking protein by first eliminating the gene for the protein in lab-grown cells. Then scientists will fuse these altered cells with cat eggs missing their own genetic material. The group has implanted some of these embryos into surrogates, but hasn't had any success yet. Still, Avner has a list of over a thousand prospective clients and hopes cc will draw new investors.

It's not clear how the federal government might regulate the production of cloned or transgenic pets. Regulators do monitor breeders who sell to pet stores and researchers who work with lab animals. The government also controls the release of genetically modified crops and insects. But genetically modified pets don't seem to fall into any of these categories.

Avner says he has no intention of creating other kinds of made-to-order pets, like green, glowing cats: "We're not interested in doing anything like that." Avner, an emergency room doctor, sees allergen-free cats as something akin to medical treatment. Transgenetic technologies might also offer a future medical treatment for the pets themselves. Scientists could, for example, eliminate genes for health problems like hip malformations that currently plague some purebred lines. Genetics Savings & Clone says it would alter genes in pets only after a review by ethicists–and would never create "biological weapons" like attack dogs.

If a market exists for green-glowing pets, however, some company probably will end up making them. Many believe that creating custom-designed pets just because scientists have the tools would be "sacrilege," says Gary Kowalski, a Unitarian minister in Burlington, Vt., who opposes cloning and wrote a book about pet loss called Goodbye, Friend. He worries that "engineering" animals, sacred living beings, will turn them into mere objects like a TV. With traditional breeding, in contrast, "a dog will always retain its essential dogness. It will never become a cat or a jellyfish."

Kac, the artist, disagrees, saying that people have already made entirely new beings. He points out that people created dogs by fundamentally changing the nature of some wolflike animal, not by simply altering existing dogs. And Kac finds Alba fascinating precisely because she's not like a RoboRabbit–she has a living presence that forces people to reconsider what's natural and what's artificial.

Over the edge? Already, some pet ownrs love animals with traits that disturb others: nearly hairless cats, dogs with tiny legs, bulldogs with such large heads that they only get born through cesarean section. Vickie Ives Speir, a horse breeder in Texas, came under fire a few years ago when she bred a cat with odd-looking front legs–some would say deformed–to get a few similar kittens. Speir insists that her cats lead hap-py lives, but others find them horrifying. "I'm sure not doing gene splicing, but from the letters I got, you'd think I had a biological laboratory in my basement."

The prospect of an artist or a millionaire creating designer pets seems pretty ho-hum to Speir. "In terms of creating new things, we've been doing it all along," she notes. "If you produce your jellyfish dog, and he had a happy life, I don't think he'd care if he glowed."

But should society care? If people start cloning their pets, and giving them new traits that were once unimaginable, it's a sure bet that, in return, those creatures will change humans in surprising ways as well. As Kac, who still hopes to make a dog glow, puts it: "What people forget is that this works both ways. As we domesticate them, they domesticate us."

With Katherine Hobson

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