Amy Vangemert shared a special bond with her dog, Buhner. But as her beloved toy poodle aged, the Washington resident began dreading his death.
So when Buhner was 12 years old, Vangemert and her husband paid $50,000 to clone their dog.
“At first I had reservations, like, ‘What is my vet going to think? What are people going to think?’ And then I thought, ‘You know what, I love my dog so much I don’t really care what anybody thinks,’” she told The Daily Beast. “I just wanted his bloodline. I knew there was no other dog like him.”
In the fall of 2016, Buhner’s veterinarian took a tissue sample from the dog’s abdomen while he was under anesthesia for a dental cleaning, then sent it to Texas-based animal cloning firm ViaGen in a biopsy kit provided by the company. A surrogate gave birth to three cloned puppies on Jan. 31, 2017; eight weeks later, the Vangemerts welcomed “BJ” (for “Buhner Junior”) and “Ditto” into their home. (A ViaGen employee adopted the third clone.)
Vangemert said she felt an instant bond with the puppies, who look remarkably similar to Buhner—they even have matching lazy eyes. She’s so pleased by the results, in fact, that she plans to clone Buhner “again and again.”
“It really is worth every penny. And especially if you get two,” she said, before adding, “Once this gets around, the waiting list [for ViaGen clones] is going to get long.”
To the dismay of opponents, who consider cloning unethical and frivolous, the demand for pet cloning does indeed appear to be on the rise. In June of 2017, ViaGen had successfully cloned several dozen cats and dogs. By January of 2018, that figure had spiked to “over a hundred,” according to Melain Rodriguez, client service manager at ViaGen Pets, who also said that ViaGen is storing “thousands” of cell lines from which clients could clone their pets in the future.
Here’s how it works. After clients pay $1,600 for genetic preservation, a veterinarian takes a skin punch biopsy from the pet’s abdomen and sends the tissue sample to ViaGen’s subculture lab in Cedar Park, Texas. Utilizing the same technology used to clone Dolly the sheep, and more recently, a pair of macaques in China (potentially paving the way for human cloning)—“somatic cell nuclear transfer”—ViaGen employees remove the nucleus from a harvested egg (oocyte) and replace it with one from the pet to be cloned. (ViaGen has cloned eight different species: cows, pigs, horses, goats, sheep, deer, dogs, and cats; they do not clone primates as in the Chinese case.)
Once cultured, a portion of the millions of cells stays at the Texas facility, while others are transported to a livestock cloning facility in Iowa owned by ViaGen’s parent company, Trans Ova Genetics, to protect eradication of a cell line in the event of a natural disaster. The cryopreserved cells are stored in liquid nitrogen tanks so that owners can decide to clone from them for up to 50 years or more, according to Rodriguez.
When the pet owner decides to proceed with the cloning process, they pay a 50 percent deposit (the total fee is $50,000 for dogs and $25,000 for cats). Numerous embryos are implanted into a surrogate animal housed at an undisclosed, secure facility in upstate New York. (A local breeder provides many of the surrogates; oocyctes for cat clonings are often harvested from free spay clinics ViaGen sponsors at animal hospitals.)
Cloned puppies and kittens stay at the facility until they are 8 to 12 weeks old. A veterinarian inspects the clones for health issues before they go to their new homes. The remainder of the fee is due on delivery.
Rodriguez said many clients opt to preserve their pet’s genetic line or proceed with cloning when the dog or cat is diagnosed with an illness or near death.
“I think they all know we’re not reincarnating the pet—it’s not that exact same pet over again, but it’s really the closest thing you could get to that pet,” she told The Daily Beast. “I think that unless you’ve had that special connection with a pet, you may not understand why you would ever want to clone a pet.”
Of course, cloning remains controversial—especially in the United States. A 2017 Gallup poll found 63 percent of Americans surveyed considered animal cloning “morally wrong” (a figure that rose to 83 percent for human cloning). The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) opposes animal cloning, and a policy statement of the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) concludes: “The commercial cloning of animals is an abuse of humanity’s power over the animal world. And, like all abuses of power, it should be prohibited by law.”
Kathleen Conlee, vice president of animal research issues at HSUS, helped craft the policy statement in 2008 following a report detailing cloning practices in South Korea, which showed numerous cloned animals died in gestation or birth, and survivors often suffered from pain and health issues (PDF). The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) began requiring cloning facilities to meet standards under the Animal Welfare Act (PDF). Conlee noted that while ViaGen is licensed with the USDA as a dealer, no inspection reports are publicly available (PDF).
“I would imagine there’s still a high failure rate, that this isn’t an easy procedure,” Conlee told The Daily Beast.
In addition to concerns about the welfare of animals involved in cloning procedures, she said it’s unbelievable that cloning exists when millions of healthy, adoptable dogs and cats are euthanized in U.S. shelters every year. “The ethics are getting totally left behind while the science accelerates. The laws need to catch up here, in my mind.”
Alan Beck, director of the Center for the Human-Animal Bond at Purdue University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, agreed that cloning pets is fraught with ethical considerations. He noted that animals cloned from pets with genetic conditions and diseases could share those health issues, and that clones will not be exact replicas because they’ll have distinct personalities and life experiences.
Accepting that pets have shorter lifespans than humans is part of loving an animal—as is grief. Beck pointed out that the human-animal bond has continued to evolve to the point that many people consider their pets family members, and the desire to clone a pet may be an unusual indicator of that deepening bond. But he feels attempting to make a copy of a pet minimizes the value of the original animal.
“There’s nothing wrong with being one of a kind,” Beck said. “That’s what I tell my two mutt dogs.”