All animal lovers will agree that that the day they had to face the death of a beloved pet was among the saddest of their lives. But what if, knowing your animal friend is in her final days, someone could offer you another lifetime with your canine companion? Science can’t technically offer that, but what is being billed as the next best thing is pet cloning.
Cloning dogs is making headlines around the world, but here’s why the dog cloning industry — and the wider pet cloning business — is such bad news for those who really matter in this debate: the animals.
Dog Cloning Launches in the UK
A South Korean biotech company, the Sooam Foundation, is offering a dog cloning service to people in the UK with an introductory competition where one dog owner can have the opportunity to eschew the £63,000 price tag, that’s about $102,047, to win a chance to clone their dog.
Insung Hwang, director of the so-called UK Dog Cloning Competition, is quoted as saying “We can clone any breed, size or shape of canine and are coming to the UK to offer this process to the owner of one very special dog. We welcome entries from any UK-based dog owner who wants to benefit from this exciting new advance in biotechnology.”
The company says it has previously cloned at least 400 dogs, including “dozens” of pets for rich Americans and is on record as producing at least 12 puppies for U.S. buyers last year.
Yet this “exciting” new biotechnology is riddled with ethical concerns that have many animal welfare experts and scientists decrying the service.
The Process Behind Big Business Dog Cloning Will Mean Poor Animal Treatment
In order to clone the dog, the genetic material has to still be fresh, so a small sample of tissue must be harvested either while the dog to be cloned is still living, or within five days of its death. The cells can then be frozen, so genetic material can be harvested even from young mature dogs for that day when, sadly, they pass away.
Another dog is then brought in, which doesn’t have to be of the same breed, to offer up a donor egg. The dog cloning team then substitutes the DNA in the egg with the material from the stored sample. Another dog is then used to house the cloned embryo and carry it to term — obviously, an adult dog of the same breed as the potential pup is best for this stage though the Korean team is noted as saying they don’t insist on it. Here’s where the ethical questions begin to glare.
First and foremost, the pregnancy success rate when this process began was, by Hwang’s own admission, at about 2%. It is now only at 30%. What do they do if a dog fails to produce a viable pup? They just try again. And again. And again. Essentially, dogs are being used as puppy making factories. For those who have already realized the troubling welfare implications of conventional dog breeding, this will immediately wave as a red flag.
What’s more, cloning isn’t an immaculate process. Hwang told the Guardian last year: “Things can go wrong. Dogs can be born unhealthy. For example, they can be born with thickened necks or tongues, and experience breathing difficulties. But we guarantee a healthy puppy for our clients, so we will try again. Often the client will take both puppies in this situation. We never put a dog down.”
They might never put a dog down, but this disingenuously implies that the dog’s lives will be rosy should their prospective owner reject them. That’s unlikely.
One of the key reasons why the cloning industry thrives in South Korea, other than an admirable quality of cultivating innovation, is that the ethical standards surrounding treatment of these particular animals is much lower than it is in the UK, Europe and the United States — indeed, cloning a dog for these purposes is not lawful within the EU or the United States.
In South Korea, the companies face no strict obligation to the same kinds of standards and, it has been alleged, that the dogs involved as surrogates for such procedures are sourced from and supplied to dog farms where welfare standards are incredibly low and from where they can be sold to be killed for food or clothing products.
The cloning industry, should it take hold, appears ready to foster a host of factory farms that would allow such practices and conditions to thrive. We know how terrible factory farms have been and continue to be for poultry and cattle, and the welfare of cloned canines or those dogs that are part of the process has not been guaranteed to be any better.
Wider Ethical Problems with Dog Cloning
The problems don’t stop at just the cloning process, either.
The owner’s hopes of the cloned dog acting the same as the dog on which its genetic material is based forgets that, for one, the process is inefficient and will not produce a carbon copy; secondly, behavioral traits are formed through a complex interplay of genetics and environmental factors and so owners could be disappointed when the copy of their deceased dog turns out to act quite differently than they had hoped.
This presents a host of potential problems for the manufactured dog.
Even the most honorable owner could not help but be disappointed when the dog they had hoped to resurrect behaves uncharacteristically. Such expectations place an unfair burden on the dog. Hopefully, the owner would eventually come around to accepting the dog for who she is, and not who the owner had wanted her to be. That’s best case scenario.
Consider that the owner is less than honorable though and decides the dog, acting so unlike their now deceased predecessor, is not what was ordered. Do they return her? The rejected dog is then shipped back to an uncertain future and through no fault of her own. She may be given to a dog farm, sold or perhaps kept as a host for future dog cloning.
Suppose the callous owners decide to dispense with the dog — it is, after all, not what was anticipated. Then it is off to the shelter, where if the dog is lucky she might be re-homed. If she’s like millions of dogs throughout the United States and Europe thoguh, she might not find a home in time and be killed by shelters that are simply inundated with unwanted pets.
Worse yet, the dog could be sent out on the street by an owner who refuses to care for her. More dire still, the dog could become subject to terrible neglect — even abuse.
These are all issues that must be considered when cloning a dog for these purposes because it treats the animals as though they are accessories for human fulfillment instead of agents in their own right. It places an unfair burden of expectation on the animal that in particular puts it at risk of mistreatment and abuse. Also, we’ve not even grazed the wider implications of breeding dogs when there are so many in shelters waiting for loving homes, a devastating argument against dog breeding as a whole.
So not only should the UK not engage with this first introductory offer from the as yet fringe dog cloning business, it should thoroughly reject it as an abhorrent practice fraught with ethical concerns and animal welfare violations that serves no other function than to fulfill a selfish human desire.
Dogs are often considered a human’s best friend. It’s time we, in return, started acting like it.
Photo credit: Thinkstock.