Tuesday, March 15, 2005

I didn't realize that this was already occuring. Strange stuff...

Animal-rights groups and ethicists have claws out over latest clones

By Howard Witt
Chicago Tribune

AUSTIN, Texas - It was something of a curiosity back in December when a California company announced the delivery of the world’s first kitten cloned for a customer bereaved enough over the loss of a pet cat to pay $50,000 to have it duplicated.

But now that the production line is ramping up - a second cloned feline was delivered to a customer last month, and three more are on the way - the response in some quarters is less than warm and fuzzy. With other designer pets, such as glow-in-the-dark fish and hypoallergenic cats, also coming off the drawing boards, some ethicists, animal-rights groups and legislators are rousing themselves to oppose what they regard as a new moral and biological threat: the manufacture of customized pets engineered to buyers’ precise specifications.

"We don’t need to be rushing Frankenkitty to the marketplace," said Lloyd Levine, a California state legislator who recently introduced a bill that would ban the sale of cloned pets. "Many of these animals are born with limbs missing and deformities. What happens if they get out and start breeding? Maybe we ought to wait and develop this scientific research before we rush this to the marketplace."

The American Anti-Vivisection Society, meanwhile, has petitioned the U.S. Department of Agriculture to begin regulating pet cloning labs that so far have evaded government scrutiny. Critics contend that cloning companies are preying on the emotions of bereaved pet owners and falsely promising exact copies of their companions.

"We want people to understand what is involved," said Crystal Miller-Spiegel, a senior policy analyst with the animal-protection group. "It’s not always the heartwarming story you hear about in the media. There’s a lot of deceit in how these companies are pitching this to consumers."

But officials of Genetic Savings & Clone, the Sausalito, Calif., company that is producing the cloned cats, as well as the firm’s satisfied customers, angrily dispute such claims. They insist that the science behind animal cloning has come a long way since Dolly the sheep was created in 1996 - and died prematurely six years later - and that advances have greatly reduced the instances of stillbirths and deformities.

Cloning of commercial livestock and even some endangered species is now commonplace, advocates argue, so why not replicate the most beloved animals of all - household dogs and cats - for clients who are willing to pay the price?

"Much of the controversy is based on science fiction," said Ben Carlson, vice president of Genetic Savings & Clone. "Many of our critics seem to rail against what they think pet cloning is. But just as IVF (in-vitro fertilization) has ceased to be controversial, over time people will perhaps understand it better and it will be more affordable."

Despite its whimsical name, Genetic Savings & Clone sees lucrative opportunities in its niche market. It has outgrown its cloning lab in Austin, Texas, and this month is to open a new facility near Madison, Wis., where scientists hope the labor-intensive process of producing cat clones can be streamlined.

Carlson said several hundred clients already have paid $295 to $1,395, plus annual storage fees, to bank genetic material from their pets that can later be used to produce clones. To spur more demand, company officials recently reduced the price of cat clones from the Hummer range down to Volvo territory - $32,000. And GSC scientists are aggressively pursuing the biologically more difficult feat of cloning dogs - a product for which the company expects to charge an even higher price.

"The people who seek our services are always going to be a minority of pet lovers," Carlson said. "Most people will be perfectly happy to continue to get pets from shelters or pet stores.

"Our clients are kind of like a subset of the folks who have settled on a particular breed," he added. "They’ve got a particular idea about the characteristics they want in their next pet. ... Cloning is going to give them the most similar pet that’s available. ... We liken it to a later-born identical twin."

That’s pretty much what the Dallas airline employee who bought the first cloned kitten says she got for her $50,000.

"What we received was a kitten that looks identical and is amazingly similar in personality" to the original cat, wrote "Julie" in a brief e-mail exchange. The woman declined to be interviewed in person or identified beyond her first name, and she would not explain why she decided to spend such a large sum for a housecat.

Critics are unconvinced by such testimonials, however, and insist that the clone buyers are being misled.

"If it was really conveyed to (GSC customers) that they would be likely to find other animals out there that have the behaviors they are interested in, I doubt they would have many clients," said David Magnus, director of the Stanford University Center for Biomedical Ethics.

"When we lost our beloved cocker spaniel last January, it was devastating," Magnus added. "The temptation to try to find a technological way to make that hurt go away is something I can really appreciate. But it’s false."

Other critics worry that the technology to clone pets has outpaced ethical considerations.

"It defies logic to think that somebody can feel right about paying $50,000 for a cat when 17 million dogs and cats are killed in shelters and pounds every year," said Mary Beth Sweetland, director of research and investigations at People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. "That money could be put towards the support of innumerable homeless animals if these people truly care about animals."

Still others insist that animals suffer at all stages of the cloning process, either as egg donors, surrogate mothers or the clones themselves, and that the absence of any government oversight leaves room for potential fraud and abuse.

Genetic Savings & Clone officials counter that all of their animals are well cared for, that they are open to monitoring by outside agencies and that they take pains not to promise customers that their cloned pets will behave precisely like their deceased predecessors.

"As long as we eliminate the harm and produce high-quality clones, it doesn’t matter the percent of the populace that feels clones should be available for sale," said Lou Hawthorne, the company’s chief executive officer. "There are lots of things that people aren’t interested in buying that are for sale."

As for human cloning - a prospect that provokes near-universal popular revulsion - Genetic Savings & Clone officials say they won’t go anywhere near it.

"Our code of bioethics states that we will not share anything with people seeking to clone human beings," said Carlson, the company vice president. "It’s not an area we see demand for. We also have moral objections."

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