DEAR READERS: After reading a cover story in Variety magazine that singer Barbra Streisand has had one of her dogs cloned, I wondered how sentimentality and unbridled consumerism in this brave new world of genetic engineering have blindsided our ethical sensibility, as well as our ability to consider the consequences of our actions and consumer choices.
Of Streisand’s three Coton de Tulear dogs, two were cloned from cells taken from the mouth and stomach of her beloved 14-year-old dog Samantha, who died in 2017. The third dog is Samantha’s distant cousin. “They have different personalities,” Streisand says. “I’m waiting for them to get older so I can see if they have her brown eyes and her seriousness.”
In an excellent follow-up article in Time magazine, Sarah Gray reports that the Texas-based company ViaGen has cloned “over a hundred” dogs and cats and is the only U.S. company performing pet cloning. The price is $50,000 to clone a dog and $25,000 to clone a cat. Pet owners can also choose “genetic preservation,” a process that stores tissue biopsies in case they want to clone the pet down the road. That option costs $1,600.
There are those who might consider spending such money on having one or more “replicas” made of a pet, rather than adopting a homeless animal, donating to a legitimate animal-protection organization or improving local animal shelter services. But they should know that clones are not identical Xerox copies. Epigenetic factors play a powerful role in development and temperament. There is no guarantee, therefore, that their personalities will be anything like the original animal’s.
Prospective cloned-pet owners should also know that kennels of dogs are kept for this purpose as a source of eggs, hormonally forced to come into heat, while others serve as surrogate mothers for the implanted clone-cell-containing eggs, many of which fail to develop normally. So many dogs are needed for this ethically questionable business enterprise; the whole situation only exploits our relationships with companion animals, rather than improving their well-being.
DEAR DR. FOX: I just read your article on mourning pets and wanted to share my story.
My dog died about two years ago. My cat, who was raised with him since a kitten, went into such mourning that I thought she was going to die. She would sit in a large walk-in closet that the dog would sleep in a lot, and meow in such a loud, sad way. She didn’t eat much, lost weight and has never really been the same.
Also, my parents had a parakeet that was never caged, and slept on a perch next to my father’s bed. My father was bedridden for a month before his death, and the bird never left his side. The bird could talk very well and even sounded like my father. The bird died the day after my father passed. -- J.L.F., Lake Worth, Florida
DEAR J.L.F.: Thanks for confirming that cats can, indeed, suffer from grief and go through a long mourning process -- from which some never fully recover -- after the trauma of losing a close companion. When we forget or deny such animal sentience (their capacity to suffer and experience a range of emotions shared by us), we are really disconnected from a dimension of reality that can lead to animal neglect and abuse.
I am touched by the death of your father’s uncaged parakeet the day after he died, and by the bird’s long vigil at his bedside. Animals can die suddenly from a broken heart, instances being documented over centuries, from elephants to horses. And certainly many species have been shown to develop depression with the loss of a loved one, which can put their health at risk. We have doubted for too long how other animals think and feel. It is better to give them the benefit of the doubt, rather than descend into the disconnected realm of inhumanity toward them -- and even toward our own kind -- for lack of respect and empathy.
MORE ON ASIAN DOG-MEAT TRADE
Olympian Gus Kenworthy, who competed for the U.S. in slopestyle skiing during the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, might not have won a medal, but he didn’t leave Korea empty-handed. After his competition, Kenworthy and his partner, Matt Wilkas, decided to visit a Korean dog-meat farm, seizing the opportunity to raise awareness for the dog-meat trade and inspire others to help dogs in need. The meaningful visit also resulted in a new little member of their household.
The Olympian documented the “heart-wrenching visit” on Instagram, emphasizing that there are around 17,000 dog farms in South Korea and 2.5 million dogs are being raised for food “in some of the most disturbing conditions imaginable” across the country. Other Asian countries with dog farms for the meat trade include Indonesia, China, Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines.
Thankfully, the farm visited by Kenworthy and Wilkas is now being permanently shut down, thanks to Humane Society International and the cooperation of the farmer. All of the 90 dogs kept on the farm will be brought to the U.S. and Canada, where they will finally have a chance at a decent life. One of those dogs, a female puppy that Kenworthy named Beemo, is coming to live with the skier after her vaccinations are complete.
(Send all mail to firstname.lastname@example.org or to Dr. Michael Fox in care of Andrews McMeel Syndication, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, MO 64106. The volume of mail received prohibits personal replies, but questions and comments of general interest will be discussed in future columns.
Visit Dr. Fox’s website at DrFoxVet.net.)