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Jewish World Review April 20, 2004 / 30 Nissan, 5764

Debra J. Saunders

Debra J. Saunders
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Consumer Reports

Hello, Kitty, or Frankenpet? | "Many discriminating cat lovers know exactly which cat they want, are willing to pay for it and won't settle for anything less," reads the Web site for Genetic Savings and Clone, which now is charging pet owners $50,000 to clone their cat.

What the Savings and Clone calls "discriminating cat fanciers," most Americans would call suckers or fools. (Another word a friend used was "creepy.") Thousands of cats are killed every day in animal shelters for want of a home. Yet some people with more money than sense are ready to spend more than the median U.S. household income in a vain attempt to sort of recreate their cat.

The folks at Genetic Savings are careful to tell potential customers they can't recreate Fluffy. If you "are grieving your pet's loss and seeking an identical replacement, then we respectfully discourage you from using our services," says the Web site, with a handy link to grief resources.

But David Prentice, a professor of life sciences at Indiana State University, believes that no matter what clients read, they'll be expecting a close facsimile to their beloved cat — and they'll be in for a "surprise." CC (short for Carbon Copy), the first and only cloned domestic cat, doesn't look or act like the cat from which she was cloned. (CC is a black and white calico, while her genes come from a tricolored tiger-tabby.)

CC was born apparently healthy, but that's not the case with many cloned animals. Wayne Pacelle, senior vice president of the Humane Society of the United States, says pet cloning should be outlawed because "high failure rates and compromised animal welfare are the most likely outcomes of this experimental procedure." The famous cloned Dolly the sheep had arthritis and aged prematurely.

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Genetic Savings spokesman Ben Carlson admitted that cloned animals have more health problems than naturally born animals. He referred me to an article in Nature Biotechnology that showed that 77 percent of cloned animals are born healthy and that a new technology should reduce defects.

Prentice, the life-sciences professor, is skeptical of the 77 percent figure. It doesn't recognize botched clones that were never born, he said, and researchers didn't check the animals thoroughly.

Will Genetic Savings disclose to the public how many cats, if any, have to be killed to make one marketable cat? The company spokesman had no answer. "They recognize that they have a defective procedure, and they're saying, 'In the end, we'll get you a live animal,'" Pacelle noted. "That assumes the process is not so precise."

The company ethics policy promises: "In the unlikely event that an animal is born with deformities or other problems, it shall only be euthanized if it is suffering or facing high probability of near-term suffering, and shall otherwise be placed in a loving home at GSC expense."

That's nice, but if, in the future, cat cloning is inexpensive and frequent, it's hard to imagine the company finding loving homes for any five-legged felines.

Pacelle says that cloning pets is wrong because it creates a new way to produce an overpopulated species. Worse, cloning could produce more rejects.

Genetic Savings' ace in the hole — and Carlson knows how to use it — is that folks like me feel like Puritans trying to argue what other people can and cannot spend their money on. Said Carlson, "In our society, people are free to spend their money as they fit."

True, but this issue isn't just about money, it's about life. It's about creating life while others are forced to destroy life.

Today, Genetic Savings wants to clone nine cats. What happens if the number reaches 9,000 and if the price falls, as the company projects? By then, it may be too late to create a law that covers this concern.

That's why a moratorium on cloning pets makes sense today. It's scary that one company can decide, "Hey, let's make cats," and do it, and then, it is precedent. Americans should at least discuss the ramifications before the practice has a chance to proliferate.

Failing that, socially aware people can decide to make pet cloning so unacceptable — the social equivalent of driving drunk — that the twits won't dare do it. They may not appreciate that they are tinkering with life, but shame is something even cats can understand. Well, some cats anyway.

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© 2003, Creators Syndicate