The idea of cloning your pet sounds like a laughable, extravagant waste of money, because it is. But it starts to seem a little less laughable when your own beloved pet starts getting older. If I had a few hundred thousand dollars to spare, I know I would’ve half-seriously considered it for my dear little cat, who died last year. One couple that does, apparently, happen to have a few hundred thousand dollars to spare is Barry Diller and Diane von Furstenberg, who have reportedly cloned their beloved Jack Russell terrier, Shannon, and now have two identical Jack Russells, named Deena and Evita.
There have always been those people who have demonstrated signs of what you could call “pet repetitive syndrome,” adopting the exact same pet over and over again. Queen Elizabeth II has owned at least 30 corgis throughout her reign, for example, and Mariah Carey in 2014 got into a custody battle with ex-husband Nick Cannon over their eight Jack Russell terriers. It’s a little weird, yes. But it also makes a certain amount of sense. Dog breeds can have wildly different temperaments, and some come with some very specific care requirements. If you’ve only ever owned Jack Russells and decide to switch to a bulldog, for instance, you’d better be ready to clean between its skin folds every day to prevent rashes and infections. Speaking (very) generally, people like familiarity and dislike the unexpected. Adopting a new pet is enough of a change; people like to know what they’re getting into.
But beyond the practicalities, there is the perfectly impractical matter of the heart. When your pet dies, you just want your pet back, or at least as close a replica as you can get. And so it’s really no surprise that of the approximately 600 dogs cloned by Sooam Biotech Research Foundation — the lab in Seoul, South Korea, that is currently the only place on the planet in the business of cloning pet dogs for owners — most were cloned for grieving pet owners, NPR reported last fall.
The science has advanced at an interesting time in pet ownership, as people are increasingly viewing their pets as members of the family: In 2013, 75 percent of dog owners surveyed by the American Veterinary Medical Association said that they thought of their dog as part of the family; compare that to 2006, when just about half of dog owners surveyed said the same. We call them our fur-babies, and we mean it, as Virginia Hughes reported for National Geographic after her own 17-month-old was struck by a car and killed. Hughes quoted psychologist John Archer, who writes:
Pet owners treat pets like children, for example, playing with them, talking to them in motherese or baby-talk, continually referring to “my baby,” and holding and cuddling them as one would a baby … Similar (but less systematic) evidence that pets act as child substitutes can be found from anthropological and historical accounts of other cultures: this includes breast-feeding of young animals by humans.
But even cloning won’t give you your pet back, not exactly. There don’t yet appear to be any studies on the behavior of cloned pets, but research on cloned cows and pigs has so far shown marked differences in behavior and even looks in cloned animals. “The technology of cloning has been sold to the public as a way of creating a group of identical animals and, as such, there are companies that have been set up around this concept, especially for pet cloning,” Jorge Piedrahita, a molecular biomedical sciences professor at N.C. State who led the pig study, said in a statement. Think of it like identical twins: The DNA is exactly the same, but there are still differences in personality and, if you know how to look for it, appearance.
Even if Diller and von Furstenburg raise their new dogs in the exact same environment in the exact same way that they raised Shannon, the new dogs will still behave like what they are: entirely different dogs from Shannon. The promise of pet cloning is that “your cloned pet is going to behave and look like the one you already have — and that will not be the case,” Piedrahita said. “We’ve cloned animals that were raised in the same environment and they still didn’t act the same.”
Even still, sometimes the things you know with your head can’t compete with the comparatively dumb hopes of your heart. That NPR report referenced earlier included the story of Dr. Phillip Dupont and his wife, Paula, who run a veterinary clinic in Louisiana. The Duponts paid Sooam $100,000 to clone their dog Melvin, a pet they loved and trusted so deeply they even let the dog “babysit their grandson in the backyard all by himself.” The Duponts got three puppies out of the deal, though one of those puppies died. The other two are named Ken and Henry, and the couple is so happy with them they’re considering using Melvin’s DNA again — what better dog to give their grandson than one created with the DNA of his former babysitter?
It makes sense; it also makes no sense at all. But one thing is for sure: There must be better ways to spend $100,000 if you’re an animal lover.