In 2017, my cohorts and I became the first students for the newly developed Folkloristics and Applied Heritage Studies master’s programme. After a few false starts, I finally found my project topic when I heard that American celebrity Barbara Streisand had cloned her dog Samantha.
I was instantly conflicted by unease and regret – unease at how unnatural cloning seemed, and regret that I never had the chance to clone my beloved cat, Nero. I quickly realized my internal conflict was a reflection of both the highly controversial aspects of pet cloning and the driving force behind cloning – love.
In order to explore this conflict further, I focused on the ways cloning companies, cloning clients, pop culture, media, and cloning dissenters perceive and talk about companion dog cloning. My research culminated in a massive open online course called Folkloristics and the Vernacular of Companion Dog Cloning that is available for free on Udemy.com.
Strong bond between people and their dogs
People who clone their dogs (or want to clone their dogs) have several things in common. First and foremost, they love their dogs. People and their dogs usually live together, sharing their lives and often food and the furniture as well. The dogs in these relationships are considered friends and/or part of the family. In these close-contact and shared lives, people believe their dogs love them just as much as they love their dogs. These bonds are so strong the person cannot imagine life without their best friend.
People who clone their dogs are often criticized for spending so much money to clone, a minimum of US $50,000, when they could easily adopt or even buy a new dog. However, cloning clients perceive their dogs as being special and therefore different from all other dogs they have known. In short, they believe their dog is irreplaceable.
Whereas cloning clients have difficulty defining what makes their dogs so special, cloning objectors refer to this quality as the personality, “soul” or memories of the dog. They question whether or not these things can be passed to the clone. For this reason, critics are concerned that cloning companies are taking advantage of grieving owners.
How cloning companies encourage clients
For cloning companies there is a fine line between encouraging prospective clients and making promises they cannot keep. On their websites, companies tap into the ways people feel about their dogs and the fears and grief that accompany the loss of such important companions. They explain that the clone often looks and behaves very similar to the dog to be cloned. Some even use scientific studies to demonstrate that certain personality and behaviour traits are genetically inherited. Others offer their services as a way for people and dogs to continue their existing relationships. But in the very next breath, companies tell clients that the clone is NOT the same dog.
It is becoming more common for cloning companies and even the media to refer to clones as “genetic twins born at a later date”. This particular turn of phrase attempts to fit the highly technological creation of a clone into a family relationship. When dogs are bred in conventional ways, it is easy for us to conceptualize “mother”, “father”, and “puppy”.
We understand how the “puppy” fits into both her own dog family and into her human family, but with clones it is much more difficult. Let’s say, for example, that Fido is cloned. The clone is a copy of Fido, but he is not Fido and neither is he Fido’s puppy. Although calling the clones “genetic twins born at a later date” helps us understand their position in the family, it also obscures the role scientists play in their creation.
The cloning techniques are moderately successful
In a process called somatic cell nuclear transfer, skin biopsies are taken from Fido and cultured in a laboratory. Meanwhile, eggs are harvested from egg donors and their nucleuses are removed. The DNA from Fido is fused with the newly enucleated eggs using chemical baths and small electrical shocks. Once the embryos have been created, they are transplanted into several surrogate mothers.
In an ideal situation, the transplanted embryos continue to grow and develop and are delivered via conventional birth or caesarean section about two months later. I say ideally, because most of the embryos do not survive. This, combined with the unnecessary surgeries surrogate mothers and egg donors undergo, sparks powerful arguments against pet cloning. Given the techniques used to create the embryos, it is easy to see why scientists are often accused of “playing God”.
Pet cloning pushes the boundaries of the natural world
Despite numerous controversies, pet cloning is a growing business. The unconventional nature of dog cloning makes it newsworthy. The media often frames pet cloning as a feel-good story and unfortunately it spends very little time engaging with the controversies. Media coverage coupled with publicly expressed interest from celebrities has certainly given pet cloning a boost in public awareness. In fact, I was concerned that my research would be seen as encouraging this practice, so in my project I dedicated a significant amount of time and space to the controversies I have outlined in this post.
Interestingly, I no longer think of pet cloning as unnatural, mainly because my perception of natural has been severely challenged. For example, caesarean sections were once highly contested as being unnatural, but I believe they have become such normative reproductive practices that many people no longer give them a second thought.
From a scientific point of view, pet cloning may be considered merely an extension of existing reproductive technology. Yet, I would not clone my pet, but I do not really understand why I feel so strongly about it. Hopefully, this baffling feeling will be resolved during my next stage of research.