The controversial and expensive procedure used to clone pets – 05/04/2022 – Equilíbrio e Saúde

When John Mendola’s beloved dog was diagnosed with terminal cancer, he decided to clone him.

Mendola is a retired New York City police officer. He was on duty at a police station on Long Island in 2006 when someone delivered a puppy he had found on the street.

“The dog was all tangled up, you couldn’t even brush her… and she had bad teeth, but she was absolutely adorable and she was so grateful,” he says.

At the end of the shift, Mendola told colleagues that there was no need to take the white and brown animal to a shelter: he would take it home. “It was the best thing I ever did in my life,” says the 52-year-old.

The dog, a hybrid breed called the Shih Apso, loved children and playing. Mendola named her Princess, after the many heroines of Disney animated films.

genetically identical

Ten years later, in 2016, Mendola received the news that Princess had cancer. Upon learning of the diagnosis, he immediately called a Texas-based company called Viagen Pets and Equine, which is the first and only American company to offer commercial cloning of dogs and cats.

Mendola says he learned about the lawsuit after seeing a South Korean documentary on the subject. The Asian country is a leader in the area and produced the first cloned dog in 2005.

The company hired by the American did a biopsy and took a tissue sample from the Princess before she died in 2017. The genetic material was used to give rise to two clones of the dog, which were born to a surrogate mother about a year later.

The puppies were genetically identical to the Princess. Mendola named them Ariel and Jasmine, also in honor of Disney films.

“The stains, the fur, everything is more or less the same, even the gestures”, he says. “You know how dogs sometimes get up and shake their whole bodies? They both do it at the same time, like the Princess did.”

Popularity on the rise

Cloning pets is controversial, but it is growing and becoming more and more popular despite its high cost.

Viagen says it is now cloning “more and more pets every year” and has cloned “hundreds” since it started its services in 2015.

The company charges US$50,000 (R$230,000) to clone dogs, US$30,000 (R$140,000) for cats and US$85,000 (R$400,000) for horses.

Of course, this cost is beyond the reach of the vast majority, but several celebrities have revealed in recent years that they have cloned their dogs or planned to do so.

In 2018, singer Barbra Streisand revealed that she had used Viagen to clone two puppies from her dog Samantha.

The same year, British newspaper The Sun reported that music mogul and reality TV judge Simon Cowell was “100% cloning” of his three Yorkshire Terriers.

technique

There are several specific cloning techniques, but normally a cell nucleus from the animal to be cloned is injected into a donor egg that has had its genetic material removed.

The egg is then cultured in the laboratory until it becomes an embryo, and then the embryo is implanted in the uterus of a surrogate mother who gives birth to a calf.

Blake Russell, president of Viagen, says the genetic material of the animal to be cloned can be stored almost indefinitely before the cloning process. This is due to the use of very low freezing temperatures or cryopreservation.

“A cloned pet is, quite simply, an identical genetic twin, separated by years, decades and perhaps centuries,” he adds.

His company says it “is committed to the health and well-being of every dog ​​and cat we work with” and adheres to all US regulations.

Diseases and low success rate

However, organizations fighting for animal welfare have raised concerns about the procedure.

There are, for example, several scientific studies that suggest that cloned animals are more prone to disease.

Other critics also point to the high failure rate of the industry: there are a large number of clones that are not born fit and healthy.

A 2018 report from Columbia University in New York indicated that the average success rate for cloning is just 20%. This means multiple surrogates are needed to allow for multiple attempts.

Penny Hawkins, an animal welfare expert at the UK’s Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, says the process of retrieving female eggs for donation and preparation for surrogacy can be painful and agonizing.

Behavior cannot be cloned

Also, a cloned animal will never be an exact copy of the original pet, especially when it comes to behavior, she explains.

“There is much more to an animal than its DNA, and cloned animals will inevitably have different life experiences, resulting in animals with different personalities.”

According to an employee of Viagen itself last year, 25% of an animal’s personality comes from its upbringing.

“We recommend that anyone looking for a new pet to become part of their family adopt one of the thousands of animals at rescue centers looking for homes,” says Hawkins.

Elisa Allen, director of the animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta), also urges people to adopt rescued animals instead of creating clones.

“The personalities, the quirks and the very essence of animals simply cannot be replicated,” she explains.

“And when you consider that millions of wonderful, adoptable dogs and cats languish in animal shelters each year or die horrific deaths after being abandoned, you realize that cloning adds to the homeless animal overpopulation crisis.”

“PETA encourages anyone who wants to bring another pet into their lives to adopt from their local shelter, rather than encouraging cloning, a cruel fashion for making money.”

Geneticist Andrew Hessel says that cloning pets raises very few ethical concerns if done responsibly.

“One might say, ‘Why clone animals when there are all these other animals available for adoption?'” he says. “However, you can use the same argument with children.”

“Why have your own child when there are all these children available for adoption? And the pets also become members of the family.”

healthy and happy

Back on Long Island, Mendola says that Ariel and Jasmine are healthy and happy.

Before the original Princess died, she adopted another rescue dog named Bebe. “When I brought the new puppies home, Bebe immediately took them in,” he says.

“He missed the Princess. He smelled them and was happy. They are Princesses.”

Bebe died unexpectedly this year, but Mendola was already prepared: he has part of his genetic material stored for possible future cloning.

Additional reporting by Will Smale, editor of the New Economy series.

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