A version of this story originally appeared on Science at Pioneer Works
Inside the complicated, messy world of pet cloning
Biologically, cloning an animal is relatively straightforward. But can a clone ever be exactly like the original beloved pet?
Between 15,000 and 25,000 years ago, humans started hanging out with a particularly friendly breed of wolves: dogs. Scientists assume that these ancient pooches were first drawn to our settlements by the smell of human food and poop. We began sharing our scraps with them, hunting with them, eventually breeding the ones we liked best. This is how dogs evolved to mirror us, and how we became obsessed with them. While monkeys and pigs have more right-brain strategic grit, the dog possesses a human-facing emotional intelligence. More than man’s best friend, we engineered a creature that would be a more reliable friend to us than we are to each other. And so, it has accompanied us in this long game of civilization. At this point in our evolutionary friendship, we get a hit of oxytocin when we look into our dog’s eyes, the love hormone, the same burst that occurs when we first look into the eyes of our newborn baby — an evolutionary trick that, in both cases, prevents us from throwing them out.
Our obsession with dogs has come a long way since our early days of hunting and gathering together. Where birth rates decline, canines increasingly replace children. Rich cosmopolitan types source them from all over the world, emblems of their uniqueness, after reading up about the characteristics of each breed. They read books to understand their designer dog’s behavior, a flourishing subgenre of science writing. They identify with their dogs, psychoanalyze them, create Instagram accounts in their name, spend more and more on their accessories, feed them ethically, even medicate them if necessary. But after 7 to 15 years, on average, their beloved pet still dies. And then the superrich dog-lover faces a painful choice: buy another dog of the same breed or reincarnate their beloved friend for $50,000.
Commercial pet cloning has been a growing industry since Texas-based biotech company ViaGen first started offering it to Americans in 2015, but many of its customers still prefer to remain anonymous. Commissioning a clone is a deeply personal choice, one often made by a rich person mourning a recently deceased pet — and it is still far from being a widely accepted practice. There are spurious reasons for this (a perceived affront against nature) but there are also well-founded bio-ethical concerns. The process is relatively inefficient and usually requires impregnating multiple host dogs to produce a single clone, which means many traumatic pregnancies and many dead clones.
But the love of a wealthy pet widow, who refuses to settle for another dog, can override all those concerns. One of the key selling points of cloning is the customer’s devotion to their dog’s personality—and an underlying belief that behavior is heritable, a logical continuation of the popular idea that different breeds have a particular habitus—the kind of genetic determinism that still seems acceptable when it comes to our pets. Pet cloning companies encourage this notion. They can’t promise that a clone will act like its predecessor, but they do their best to insinuate as much with supportive case studies. This, their critics allege, is how they fleece grieving pet owners. Buying and selling hope, the customer and the company embark on a small-scale genetic experiment. Together, they are spawning new evolutionary strains of man’s best friend. But the question remains: to what end?
“We drove to a tax free state … to receive it, so that we wouldn’t have to pay taxes on the clone,” says Jordan (name changed). “[Clones] aren’t cheap.”
The LA-based artist rented a room in a desert motel and waited there with a cocktail of feelings: determination, doubt, elation, grief. In the room next door, a ViaGen employee was waiting with a litter of four puppies—all exact genetic copies of Jordan’s dearly departed Boxer. Many cloning attempts yield no clones whatsoever; some produce several. If you’re lucky, like Jordan, you get four clones for the price of one.
Jordan took turns receiving each of the puppies and evaluating them. “I sat like a queen on a throne in an empty hotel room, while each one was brought in to me, so that I could spend 10 minutes with it and sort of get to know its temperament, to see, like, were they the same? Or were they different?” Ten minutes with each puppy turned out not to be enough, so Jordan took the entire litter home with him. “[I] rotated each one out for an hour on my lap. … It was quite amazing. Because the very first one that I put on my lap turns out to be [the One], upside down like this with his mouth open, sleeping, snoring, just like sitting in my lap exactly like [my old dog] would do. It was the same face, the same mannerism. It was wild.”
Jordan’s original dog was beautiful—in his words, “the Kendall Jenner of Boxers”—and the clone looked almost identical. But having a gorgeous clone wasn’t enough; the copy would also have to be “that one soulmate special dog.” Jordan was looking for that heritable behavior. He had done research on the topic. “For monozygotic twins separated at birth and raised completely differently, the correlation coefficient is about .75,” he says. Behavioral geneticists refer to this question as the heritability coefficient, “the proportion of variance in a specific temperamental trait in the population that is due to genetic differences.”
ViaGen’s representatives and copywriters take great pains not to promise that your clone will match the original on the character front, but they do suggest that it’s a possibility. On their website, they answer the question of heritable behavior with observations and customer testimonials — tales of cloned cows who roll their tongues just like their previous iterations, cats who roll their R’s the same way as their predecessors. Embryologist Dennis Milutinovich, ViaGen’s cloning lab manager, offers anecdotal evidence in the same vein. “I, personally, am convinced that behavior is probably 75% genetic, and everything else, nurture, is 25%,” he says to me on Zoom. “That’s just based off my own viewing and experience with the clones.” His colleague, Chief Science Officer Shawn Walker, is more measured. “It’s the same genetic makeup, [and] genetics makes up all the characteristics of the animal, but we don’t know how it affects behavior. But what I can say is I have been overwhelmingly surprised at how much it appears behavior is controlled by genetics, based on the feedback we get from the clients.”
Jordan (who gave the three other clones away to friends) has taken the supposed 25% nurture that forms a dog’s personality into his own hands. “If you’re doing this because it’s such a fantastic dog, then I feel like you should try and make as many parameters the same.” He has done his best to replicate the conditions and routines of his old dog’s upbringing as precisely as possible. But no amount of effort could have made the replication perfect, and there are some differences between the dogs. The new one is more confident and less scared of trucks. He’s cuddlier than the original, and, Jordan admits, also “a little bit naughtier.” He almost sounds...better.
The messier the industry, the cheesier the brand identity
RePet, the fictional pet-cloning company in Roger Spottiswoode’s campy techno-thriller The 6th Day (2000), has a more forward sales pitch than ViaGen. “Your RePet Oliver will be exactly the same dog. He’ll know all the same tricks you taught him, he’ll remember where all the bones are buried, he won’t even know he’s a clone.” Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Thanksgiving box office bomb gets a lot right about the future pet cloning industry, and American capitalism generally: the more controversial the industry, the cheesier the brand identity. “ViaGen Pets. Love that lasts forever,” the company’s website promises.
Katy, a ViaGen customer, says that after her clone was born, the company would send her weekly progress reports that included photos of the puppy in miniature potemkin villages. (“It was this strange kind of space … that’s made to look like a whole little town [with] fake grass and fake little streets and stuff … They created a simulacrum of a kind of Pleasantville-style town, with all fuzzy items, like fuzzy little cars, little fuzzy dog toys.”) Her friend Garrett chimes in, “You have to see the reports because it’s literally Philip K. Dick. Like, it is Total Recall. It’s like, ‘ViaGen Pets: For a better tomorrow,’ or, ‘So the past never leaves,’ or something.” Cute pet pics — and inspirational copy — are ViaGen’s marketing bread and butter. Just as many animal products feature a smiling cow somewhere in their artwork, a controversial industry like pet cloning requires a lot of cutesy gloss. ViaGen — which also clones cats (for $35,000) and livestock—does its best not to trouble customers with the slightly messy process enabling their pet’s rebirth.
Milutinovich gives me the rundown of a standard embryo implantation process. “We have a vet on staff, she works exclusively with us doing surgeries and a lot of animal care and stuff like that. She’ll just make a small midline incision and exteriorize the ovary and just take my embryos into a little catheter, go right into the oviduct of the ovary, and plunge those in. Whole procedure takes ten minutes maybe. Tuck that back in, stitch it up, and hopefully you have a pregnant surrogate.” (“That’s a pretty good basic overview of it,” Walker confirms in his distinctive Virginia drawl. “The only difference between species, between cats and dogs and horses, would be that for horses we’d do a nonsurgical transfer.”)
The process hasn’t evolved much since Dolly the Sheep was born in 1996. Milutinovich and his staff use a process called “enucleation” to prepare a surrogate’s oocyte — the mother’s egg cell — to accept another dog’s DNA. First, they stain the surrogate’s DNA in the oocyte’s nucleus. Then UV light is flashed on it so that it glows in the dark and a “tiny little needle” is used to suck out the DNA. Next, the nucleus of a somatic cell from the original animal is injected into the enucleated oocyte with the tiny needle. Milutinovich and team then “zap” the oocyte with electricity until the inserted cell fuses into its ooplasm — an egg’s cytoplasm. The next step is a process called “activation,” in which the newly fused cell is pulsed with electricity until it “kicks into gear” and begins to function like a naturally fertilized oocyte — in other words, it begins to develop. After that, it’s only a matter of implanting it and hoping for the best.
Articles critical of the pet cloning industry dwell on a number of ethically ambiguous aspects of the embryo development and implantation processes. A 2018 article in Smithsonian Magazine describes the cloning of a dog named Snuppy: “Many cloned pregnancies don’t take hold in the uterus or die shortly after birth, as was the case with Snuppy’s twin. Snuppy and his twin were two of only three pregnancies that resulted from more than 1,000 embryos implanted into 123 surrogates.” An advisor to a South Korean dog cloning company is quoted as saying: “You need a good number of dogs to do this type of cloning. I would say it’s about 20 percent. Very high.” That means four female dogs enduring a traumatic pregnancy, and four clone babies dying, to reincarnate one rich person’s dog. Bio-ethicist Jessica Pierce, writing in the New York Times, went as far as to say that the pet cloning industry was creating “a whole canine underclass that remains largely invisible to us but whose bodies serve as a biological substrate.”
Walker acknowledges that he and his team encounter non-viable embryos and birth defects, but he defends ViaGen’s processes by referring me to the horror of traditional breeding practices. “Obviously we don’t like to get into that discussion a whole lot, but if you talk to any dog or cat breeder, pig breeder, there’s a number of animals that basically do have congenital defects…and so we do encounter those just like everybody else does in the breeding world.”
ViaGen (“The worldwide leader in cloning the animals we love”) are emphatic about their love for animals. “I think the one thing you’ll find is…as a general group, the company is big-time animal lovers,” Walker tells me. ViaGen’s Chief Science Officer peppers his cutest anecdotes — like the one about a bucking horse who liked to have his tongue scratched, or a bull named Chance whose clone was christened Second Chance — with folksy turns of phrase. “The foal’s in there just lovin’ on the girls,” he says. “The guy would have it alongside the road and set kids on it…just a big ol’ bull, ya know?” Lab manager Milutinovich is an animal lover too. “I have a surrogate cat that had our second litter of cloned cats. I brought her home and she’s the best cat ever,” he told me, in an effort to allay my concerns about the fate of surrogate animals. “I have a toy poodle,” Walker jumps in, “and now I got an eight-month-old Great Dane that’s grown like mad.”
Asked about the specific number of surgeries that surrogates endure before retirement, Milutinovich demurs, then tries to reassure me. “We keep it very reasonable, because obviously, we don’t want any more work for these animals than they absolutely need to [do]. After a few litters, they’re feeling pretty good and we tend to give them a good home.” How ViaGen determines when surrogates are “feeling pretty good” Milutinovich did not explain.
Their way of selecting surrogates made for slightly more pleasant conversation. According to Walker, the key is to find a dog with “great maternal instincts.” Additionally, they should be docile and “easy to work with.” One thing that customers sometimes find surprising — as in Katy’s case — is that the surrogates don’t have to be the same breed as the clones they’ll give birth to. “I actually asked too many questions, kind of breaking the fourth wall of the experience,” she told me. When she asked about the mother’s breed, she was told it was a beagle, but no other details about the surrogates’ experiences were made available.
A grief industry
Arnold Schwarzenegger walks into a RePet outlet in a shopping mall. On a screen embedded in the wall, a smarmy infomercial host intones, “Your pet doesn’t want to break your heart. Thanks to RePet, he doesn’t have to.” An eager sales associate sidles up to Arnold.
– You lost a dog, right?
– Yes, my daughter’s.
– Oh, what a heartbreak. What’d you say his name was again?
– Well, Oliver’s in luck, because we’re having a special this week: 20% off. When did Oliver die?
– Sometime this morning.
– Oh, that’s perfect. We can still do a post-mortem syncording. But you gotta act fast, because there’s only a 12-hour window on deceased brains.
– I have a problem with that whole idea. I mean, suppose the clones have no soul, or they’re dangerous?
– Cloned pets are every bit as safe as real pets. Plus, they’re insured.
Arnold seriously considers the proposition and says: “Let me think about that. I might be back.” The associate responds with another nod to Schwarzenegger’s most beloved franchise: “You’ll be back.” ViaGen has a way of pushing this same sales pitch a little bit harder. A pet’s DNA is only useful for cloning in the immediate aftermath of its death, and ViaGen offers desperate pet widows the opportunity to store that DNA in liquid nitrogen for $1600, just in case they may want to clone it one day. Only 10% of customers end up going forward with the whole procedure, but it’s nice to think that a bit of your old friend (usually a four-millimeter punch of abdominal tissue) is still alive somewhere, in case you get rich. Though some customers have the foresight to clone their dog while still alive, ViaGen’s sales pitch is aimed squarely at mourners.
In January 2020, Katy and her fiancé Scott adopted a Basset hound named Jenny, who died two weeks later in a gruesome elevator accident. “It was horrific,” her friend Garret says, “something that no one should ever have to go through.” The pain gave birth to a plan. “I don’t quite remember because I was in such a state of grief,” says Katy, “but I believe some kind of idea started percolating between Scott and Garrett, both of whom are kind of futurists in their own right, and also great, execution-oriented people who solve problems. And that’s kind of how Scott, I would say, grieves.”
Katy had some misgivings. As soon as she and Scott had retained ViaGen and gotten “this clone situation on track,” she decided to pursue what might be a “slightly healthier solution.” While ViaGen’s embryologists in Rochester were plunging oocytes into surrogates’ oviducts, Katy hired a private investigator in Dallas — an ex-Navy SEAL — to find Jenny’s original mother. When the PI found the owners, there was one puppy left from the original litter, but they were using him as a breeder dog. The PI tried to negotiate but couldn’t make a deal — “As soon as we wanted to offer them money they started to think that they’d gotten the golden goose with these dogs” — and returned to Dallas empty-handed. Katy and Scott were starting to lose hope. But then, one December day, they got a call from ViaGen saying they had a viable pregnancy and a new Jenny was on the way. Katy was elated, sensing the possibility of imminent relief from her grief and guilt.
The day she got the call, a severe winter storm hit the tri-state area. It would receive nicknames like the “Groundhog Day nor’easter” and dump a foot of snow on New York City and over three feet on some parts of the Eastern Seaboard. But, after a year of waiting, a super-blizzard wasn’t enough to stop Katy. She ploughed from Tribeca to Rochester, with Garret and her other pet Basset hound Lucy in tow. They pulled into a snowed-in Chick-Fil-A parking lot next to a lone Subaru. A ViaGen vet tech emerged with a small crate, which he safely stowed in her back seat, before handing her a water bowl and some puppy food and driving away. Garrett says the whole experience was “very weird and kind of impersonal.” This didn’t bother Katy. “Puppy was so cute!” she recalls. “Puppy was also shivering.” But not everyone was pleased. Lucy, the other Basset hound, did not receive Jenny 2.0 well.
Katy’s new dog would turn out to be quite different — much more sinister than Jenny. “It just seems like a little bit of a satanic version of the original dog,” she told me. “The puppy likes to kind of bite your face. Not in, like, a bite-bite-bite way, but in a kind-of like gnaw-gnaw-gnaw way. And that’s a little maniacal.” Garrett put a finer point on it by comparing the young clone to Damien, the boy Antichrist from the 1976 supernatural thriller The Omen. But after a year of uncertainty and regret, Katy and Scott are happy to make a go of it. After shelling out the equivalent of a year’s college tuition, they don’t really have a choice. Though sad for Katy, Jenny 2.0’s sinister streak is a victory for nurture over nature, particularity over pure biology, a happy ending if you have the right politics.
After all these cogitations, the same question remains: was it worth all the money and, more importantly, all the animal sacrifice? Unlike space-bound dogs, surrogate pets and their spawn do not go down in history as pioneers. The outcome of their labor is at best a scientific curiosity. For now, there are few of them, but that may soon change. The price of commercial pet cloning has already halved since its inception and is expected to decrease further. Technological innovations could help boost its popularity, particularly our continued efforts to tap into the animal mind.
In The 6th Day, a pet’s personality is transferred to its clone via a process called “syncording.” That could be a possibility soon, according to Milutinovich. “We’re getting there,” he says, drawing hope from Elon Musk’s Neuralink and a Chinese company’s questionable efforts to copy a cat’s memory. This is still a long shot, luckily, a bubble in a bubble. Our pets’ uniquely mysterious minds are the only aspect of their lives still beyond our control — their last bastions of privacy from our relentless affection.