Heard a story on the radio this morning that touched a bit of a nerve. Apparently, for $100,000 a lab in South Korea can clone your dog for you. NPR did a profile of a couple in Louisiana who did this with their dog Melvin, twice.
There are a number of troubling things about this, and to NPR’s credit they did a good job of touching on them. For starters the eggs for these clones need to be harvested from female dogs and placed into surrogate mothers. The procedure is often unsuccessful and requires multiple attempts to produce a viable clone. And most clones have defects that can cause them to be sickly.
But as all science fiction writers have a tendency to do, let’s set aside all of the medical complications and consider the question from a more ethical perspective, assuming eventually the technology will get better.
The US Humane Society estimates the owned dog population (in 2013) to be about 80 million. Another 6-8 million dogs wind up in shelters, with approximately 2.7 million not adopted each year. That’s 1 dog for every ten people in the United States. Clones don’t appreciably affect this population (NPR reported the particular lab has only produced 600 or so cloned dogs), but there are still many dogs out there who are alive and need a home.
Okay, dog over population is bad, it’s why Bob Barker always told us to get our pets spayed and neutered (and not because of his amusing last name). But again, not my point.
We lost our first dog, Simon, about a year and a half ago*. Like the family in the radio piece, it took two dogs to replace him, our beagle-boxer Riley (who we adopted from a shelter 3 days after we put Simon to sleep) and Murphy, a beagle like Simon who we adopted a few months ago. Simon was a great dog, very chill, but always greeted me when I got home. Those last days with him were hard as a tumor in his brain caused seizures, but he still was able to enjoy walks, and even a Five Guys Burger.
Losing a pet is hard. It took us a while to grieve for Simon and every now and then Murphy gives us a look that reminds us of our dog when he was younger (though we’re doing a better job at keeping Murphy thin). Riley and Murphy are very different dogs. Riley is playful, energetic, a lot taller even though he can curl up surprisingly small and isn’t much of a snuggler, though he has his moments. Murphy is a lap dog (at least he thinks he is) who I suspect would explode if he wasn’t on a human for more than an hour.
Cloning Simon, I would have missed out on the new experience of my dogs now. And cloning anything, a pet or even a loved one is trying to deny a fundamental part of our nature.
Things end. People and pets pass away. It’s sad, and it can be hard to deal with sometimes. But I can’t help but feel like cloning a pet is denying that truth, trying to set aside grief, to cheat death. But it’s a trick. A dog might be a genetic duplicate, but that is not everything that made it who it was. Even a cloned animal is still a different being than the one that preceded it. Part of life is about letting go, and letting others into our lives. Simon had a happy full life with us, and we’re trying to do the same for Riley and Murphy.
$100,000 could help hundreds of dogs. You could pay the adoption fee for the whole Franklin County Animal Shelter with that kind of money, and let families who might balk at the upfront money still provide a loving home. You could pay for medical expenses for older dogs and help them live a little longer with their owners. You could buy free bags of dog food for needy families who otherwise would have to give up their pet.
I understand this Louisiana family’s choice. But I can’t help but think of it as selfish, offensive, and ultimately self-defeating.
* My wife has had other dogs, but this was the first one she adopted herself. I came along a couple of years later so he predated me.