MIAMI (AFP) – After photographer Monni Must’s 28-year-daughter Miya committed suicide while in the midst of an abusive relationship, the grieving mother adopted Miya’s spunky black Labrador, Billy Bean.
Last year, as the 10th anniversary of her daughter’s death approached, the dog was nearing 13 and becoming increasingly frail.
She decided to clone her. She paid more than US$50,000 for what is essentially an identical twin of Billy, born at a later date.
Cloning animals is hardly new. The first major success was Dolly the sheep, born in 1996 as the first mammal cloned from an adult cell. In 2005, researchers in South Korea cloned the first dog.
But the news that singer Barbra Streisand had cloned her dog grabbed international headlines, and sparked fresh outrage from animal rights groups.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) president Ingrid Newkirk said she would “love to have talked her out of cloning,” noting that “millions of wonderful adoptable dogs are languishing in animal shelters every year or dying in terrifying ways when abandoned.”
Companies cloning animals are “preying on grieving pet owners, giving them false promises that they are going to replicate their beloved pet,” said Vicki Katrinak, program manager for animal research issues at The Humane Society of the United States.
“Pet cloning doesn’t replicate a pet’s personality,” she said, adding there is “no justification” for the practice.
Just how many pets are cloned each year is unclear. The main US company engaged in practice, ViaGen Pets, declined AFP’s requests for comment.
The other main source for cloned pets in the Sooam Biotech Research Foundation in Seoul, South Korea, which says it has cloned some 800 pets and charges US$100,000 each.
Many companies have tried and failed to make the pet cloning business work.
Dogs can be cloned up to five days after they die and cats up to three, as long as the corpses are kept cool.
Ideally, though, the pet should be alive when the veterinarian takes a tissue biopsy, a chunk of skin and muscle about the size of a pencil eraser.
The next step is to take an egg cell from a donor dog, remove the egg’s nucleus, and insert DNA from the pet to be cloned. When an embryo develops, it is transplanted in the womb of a surrogate dog.
Animal rights groups say the process causes undue suffering to the dogs that provide the egg cells and carry the embryos.
Traits that will carry over can include temperament, physical characteristics and genetic flaws. Coat patterns may differ, and the cloned animal will have no awareness of the life of its predecessor.
According to Ms Must, the puppy that was cloned from Billy is playful and fearless, like her. They also share the same petite frame, shiny coat and big paws.
She named the puppy Gunni, after the town in Colorado, Gunnison, where her daughter lived, and is grateful for the respite from grief the canine has provided. She was born the same week as the anniversary of her daughter’s passing.
“It was singularly one of the best decisions that I have made,” Ms Must said.