I was expecting three heads, six toes, something like Frankenstein. But what I saw when I met four cloned mutts crooning for attention in a leafy Pasadena backyard was far more mundane. The dogs playing in the grass were teacup-sized terrier-schnauzer mixes — two pairs of cloned twins, Wolfie Bear and Wolfie Girl had salt-and-pepper markings and floppy ears, while Bubble Facer and Bubble Rubble had cocaine-white coats and elfin ears.
The owner of the dogs is a 49-year-old Thai emigre and entrepreneur named Peter Onruang. He never had kids — not human ones at least — and he never married. He wanted to share his life with his animals. So when his two dogs passed to the other side, he decided to replace them with their approximate duplicates. “When they were born, I remember when they popped out, I was there,” he said of the cloned sisters. “I’m not a religious person, but I always found this peaceful feeling with my dogs. I can’t explain it, but I love them.”
For attached dog owners like Onruang, cloning your dog is now easy, as long as you have the right-sized bank account. Startups from Texas to South Korea offer the service, which typically costs about $60,000 a pet (Onruang got a deal — two clones for the price of one).
Cloning entails copying a cell by transferring its nucleus into a donated egg cell that had its nucleus previous removed. After electrical shock stimulation, that egg begins to divide. After several days of dividing, the mass consists of embryonic stem cells that resemble an identical genetic twin of the original. You have five days after your pet dies to extract its genetic material for cloning, according to the Seoul-based Sooam Biotech Research Foundation, which offers dog and cat cloning services. The company recommends wrapping the deceased in wet blankets and throwing them into the fridge before you send the package. From there, scientists will harvest tissue and eggs, usually from slaughterhouses, then transfer them into surrogate mothers via in vitro fertilization.
It can take dozens of artificial inseminations into a mother animal’s womb to get a single egg to gestation. When that mother finally does give birth — there are scores of these surrogate mothers whose only job is to be filled with needles until they conceive, and then do it again — what’s born might be a genetic copy of the original, but it isn’t a perfect copy.
“There’s too many mistakes, too many stillbirths, deformities, and mutations.”
When I picked up Onruang’s pups and examined them head to hock — they weighed maybe three pounds a piece — I saw surprising amounts of subtle variations in markings and size. Some of the dogs shook when I got close, others barked defiantly as if to say, “this is my territory!” One licked my hand while another growled and snapped at my finger. Even among those who share identical genes, nutrition, life experience, and stress determine how those genes impact personality or appearance, and even which genes are turned on and which ones are deactivated. And clones do not have exactly the same cellular makeup as the animal a pet owner is trying to replicate. When an animal is cloned, the donor — the mother carrying the clone — contributes extremely low levels of mitochondrial DNA. “That’s the variation which can account for differing color patterns and other unknowns,” says Doug Antczak, a veterinary scientist at Cornell University who specializes in horse genetics.
What’s eventually passed to the cloned pet buyer is a reasonable facsimile, something good enough to the naked eye that they’ll say: “That’s my dog!” And here’s where the scale of this production might — or should — give pause.
Many clones are born with defects and genetic disorders, and since those imperfections aren’t what their buyer is spending tens of thousands of dollars on, they end up discarded. That’s the price. Neonatal complications for cloned animals abound: Poor placenta and fetal development in the womb lead to high rates of early- and late-stage abortions. Once born, those first few weeks remain tenuous: Incidences of large offspring syndrome (which usually results in a cesarian section) are high as are pneumonia and respiratory distress syndrome in cloned lambs and cows, which indicates poor adrenal gland and lung function.
And if that cloned dog does make it through the gauntlet — but is missing the spot over its eye that a deceased pet had, for instance — it still faces a swift death via euthanasia, just another pile of genetic material to harvest.
“There’s too many mistakes, too many stillbirths, deformities, and mutations,” warns Chris Cauble, a Glendale, California, veterinarian whose mobile service offers tissue collection for cloning pets.
Despite being involved in the industry, Cauble wouldn’t clone his own pets. “I’d hate to see one of my beloved dogs born with three eyes or without a leg. I’d feel like I created a monster. There are a lot of failures, and those are killed because they’re not perfect. They keep trying until they get a good puppy. Consumers have to realize the procedure is not fully perfected.”
To say it takes a lot of eggs to make an omelette is crude and cruel, but it’s also apt. And though it looks like we’re on track to make many more “omelettes” — with celebrities promoting and normalizing the practice of cloning pets — there’s no sign that it will take fewer eggs any time soon.
For the right price
When Sir Ian Wilmut announced in 1997 that he had cloned a mammalian animal for the first time, a sheep named Dolly, it sparked fear that human clones would be next. Lee Silver, a biology professor at Princeton University told the New York Times after Wilmut’s achievement that the news “means all of science fiction is true.” He added: “It basically means that there are no limits.”
But instead of human clones and sci-fi horror, Dolly’s legacy is a small industry based around cloning animals.
In 2004, the brilliant but tortured Hwang Woo-Suk claimed to have cloned the first human embryos, but researchers soon discovered he had forged his findings. A year later, though, Hwang successfully gave the world the first cloned dog, an Afghan hound named Snuppy. The dog was cooked up with an ear cell from an adult hound, but the process was costly — it took 1,095 extracted eggs and 123 surrogate mothers. Only two mothers carried the cloned babies it to term. The rest of the embryos died weeks after birth. It’s extremely difficult for embryos to take hold in surrogates because implanting tissue that’s previously frozen, like eggs, can lead to rejection by the host body.
So many surrogate mothers, so much genetic material and lives, all to produce one pup. Still, the focus wasn’t on the sacrifices. Hwang had accomplished something that had never been done before. Time awarded Snuppy its “Invention of the Year,” the first pet to be so fêted.
In 2008, the Department of Agriculture approved meat and milk from cloned cattle, swine, goats, and their offspring, allowing farmers to clone a proven performer rather than to aim to create a new one through conventional breeding. Meanwhile, Hwang’s biotech company Sooam has produced more than 400 cloned pets in a dozen years. He’s even attained a degree of mainstream legitimacy — his company has internship programs with several major American medical institutions.
Celebrities who have cloned their pets have given the practice additional respectability. When Barry Diller and Diane von Furstenberg lost their Jack Russell terrier, Shannon, they put the dog on ice and forked over $100,000 to Sooam. Months later, two puppies arrived, Deena and Evita. Diller and DVF declined to comment, but appear happy with their pups, at least on Instagram.
“It’s not a moral thing for me, I just wanted my dog.”
Sooam isn’t the only dealer. Texas’ ViaGen clones livestock, horses, and pets for around the same price. (ViaGen cloned Barbara Streisand's dog Samantha — twice.) China’s Boyalife claims to be building a clone factory capable of pumping out 1 million pets a year. There’s a slew of others.
PETA is pushing for celebs to stop cloning their pets, citing high rates of failure and the fact that the cloned animal you get isn’t a carbon copy of your pet — but it’s hard to let go if you have the money and connections.
Take Matthew Johnson, the Canadian director of Doggy Daycare, who in 2016 paid ViaGen about $60,000 to clone his German Shepherd-dingo mix, Woofie. He says the dog’s affection helped him walk again after he contracted bacterial meningitis. When we spoke shortly after he received two “identical” female pups, he told me: “I couldn’t be happier. I always wanted to clone her. It’s not a moral thing for me, I just wanted my dog.” Even though clones are never actually carbon copies of the original, Johnson doesn’t see it that way. He says of the clones that their “behavior is the same, mannerisms, attention spans. Same coat, even birthmarks… It’s the same dog, exactly.”
Johnson now plans to clone his Bengal cat. “I’m going to do it again for sure,” he says.
If the pet cloning industry isn’t going away, can the process be made more humane? After years of attempts, there’s been little improvement, according to researchers. Members of the South Korean team that produced Snuppy, the first cloned dog, continue to study the health of cloned animals versus their genetic counterparts, even going so far as to reclone Snuppy to better understand such longevity. In 2017, four Snuppy clones were born — one of which died four days after birth due to severe diarrhea — with researchers concluding that “Snuppy had a life span that was very similar to that of his somatic cell donor.”
Those findings read as wishful thinking. Multiple bodies of scientific literature support the fact that clones continue to have exceedingly high rates of cancer and very early deaths. Upward of 96% of cloning attempts end in death, deformity, or disease. Premature arthritis and viral lung cancer plagued Dolly to the point that she was euthanized at six. Snuppy ended up dying of cancer at age 10. The process of transferring embryos is so stressful on mothers that the U.K. requires administering general or epidural anesthetic. And with a C-section routine for unnaturally large cloned babies, the European Parliament voted in 2015 to ban the cloning of all farmed animals due to the extreme nature of their suffering.
“I could make a human clone today if I wanted to.”
Alan Meeker, the Texas oil tycoon turned CEO of Crestview Genetics, has cloned 100 thoroughbred horses that sell for as much as $80,000. He says he’s created a more humane method for cloning animals, but won’t give many details. Even if it takes dozens instead of hundreds of surrogates, the improvement remains dubious. But his grandest claim is far beyond four legs.
Meeker says he’s set up a lab in the Bahamas that’s testing cloned stem cells he believes could cure diabetes for around $10 million per patient. A diabetic himself, Meeker plans to use his own blood to test the diabetes cure. It’s his past experience cloning everything from horses to dogs that gives Meeker the confidence to declare that this is possible. Yet it’s not his most outlandish pitch. “I could make a human clone today if I wanted to,” he tells me when we discuss cloning.
Meeker says he’s fielded inquiries about cloning humans “by people who have more than the national debt.” He says he doesn’t do it because he fears that these clones will be born with memories from their parents, although researchers say it is impossible.
Shortly after his successful cloning of Dolly the sheep became public, Wilmut told reporters that since any mammal could be cloned in the right setting, a global ban on human cloning was needed. Approximately 46 countries have since banned human cloning. Cloning a human would require the same factorylike conditions needed for cloned pets, and no one wants to get their hands dirty with illegal human test subjects. It’s also not so clear that anyone could clone a human even if they tried. The closest we’ve come to replicating ourselves on the tree of life is a pair of long-tailed crab-eating macaques named Zhong Zhong and Hua Hua, created by researchers at the Chinese Academy of Sciences Institute of Neuroscience in Shanghai in 2018. Ernie Bailey, a genetics professor at the University of Kentucky, assured me that human cloning is not possible, and suggested another reason that Meeker hasn’t cloned a person: “If his researchers could could do it, they would.”
A slippery slope from animal clone to human clone is unlikely. But if it’s worth asking these ethical questions when it comes to humans, is it also worth asking them in relation to pets?
Onruang, who sings ballads to his cloned quartet of dogs every night and refers to them as his children, told me he was so distraught when his original pets died that he was willing to do anything. “A lot of people thought I was crazy, a lot of people thought I was weird,” Onruang explained as he cradled Wolfie Bear and Wolfie Girl, who licked his face as we toured his home office. “It’s been a long journey, a 10-year journey to clone my dogs.”
When I asked Onruang about the surrogate mothers, the money, and whether he would he do it again, he wasn’t sure.
“Maybe not,” he said. “In 10 years I don’t know what my health will be. The last thing I want is to pass away and leave my children alone in the world. No one’s going to love them like I do. Some animals are suffering in order for me to get Wolfie in my hands. What happens to surrogate mothers? I do acknowledge that. It’s tough.”