Remember how when we came across someone we really thought was really awesome we used to say ‘I wish I could clone him/her’? Well, provided that the him or her in question is a non-human animal, now you can. Yes, cloning is everywhere around us. If you ate the flesh of an animal at a fast food restaurant recently, you may even have eaten cloned meat.
I have a column of the same name as this blog in every issue of the magazine Horse Sport International in which I attempt to find a middle road between investigative journalism and blogging. Call it a blog-itorial if you will. Every six weeks or so (the mag comes out eight times a year) I think of a topic that is timely and interesting (firstly to me of course) and mull it over for a couple of pages. This week I wrote my column for the magazine’s next issue, Number 7, about the prospect of cloned horses turning up at future Olympic Games. Now that the FEI has pulled a Mitt Romney and reversed its stance on cloned horses in FEI competition, it is within the realm of possibility that clones could turn up at the Olympics as soon as Rio in 2016. Here is a snippet from Mission Control’s stated position in 2007: “The FEI opposes cloning for it goes against one of the FEI’s basic objectives: to enable FEI athletes ‘to compete in international events under fair and even conditions’.” And here is a snippet of what the FEI Generalissimo vet Graeme Cooke (whom I happen to hold in very high regard, BTW) was quoted as having said in a National Geographic article that came out during the London Olympics: “Cloning was no unfair advantage”. I don’t want to be a spoiler and give away the entire contents of my column, but suffice it to say that my ruminations led me to a conclusion about the issue that surprised me.
In doing my highly specialized research (Googling ‘cloned horse’ and ‘cloned dog’), I came across some faintly amusing but mostly horrifying websites for companies that want to clone your beloved pet. Besides wondering why anyone in their right mind would want to clone an animal because they think it will make their dead pet live forever (your pet is dead – the kitty on your lap is a kind of 3-D photo copy, and don’t expect it to recognize you when you first set eyes on it), I was mildly shocked by the hard sell tactics of one company website, whose every page flashes a red message that says: “If your Pet Has just died please Click here now before it’s too late!” Yes, the mad scientists at My Friend Again want to preserve your beloved pet by scraping off some skin cells and – when you cough up the cash – growing you a replacement Fido or Felix. Actually, what I think they really want you to do is pay them to store your pet’s DNA forever and ever, because I suspect that’s where they make most of their money. If you want to know the cost of the actual cloning, you are asked to contact the company, but they are more than happy to share with you on the site the modest cost of $150 per year to store Fluffy’s cells for you. According to my further intensive research (Googling ‘cost cloning dog’), the price tag for a cloned puppy can run anywhere from $50k to $100k. Not exactly chump change, is it? Imagine how many school books and teachers’ salaries that would pay for in Guatemala.
I don’t imagine I’m the only one who finds cloning creepy. Maybe not as creepy as having your dead pet stuffed so you can look at its lifeless glass eyes every morning over your coffee, but creepy nevertheless. Are there really that many people with too much money and not enough to do with it that there is a real market for cloning? Horses are a different story, of course, because clones are ‘grown’ (cultivated? manufactured? what’s the right term for this?) primarily because people are willing to pay serious bucks for access to the DNA of a Jazz or a Quidam de Revel, and clones can provide that highly desired genetic material – or at least 98% of it. According to the research that led the FEI to embrace the clones, a clone is not guaranteed to be more than 98% identical to the source animal.
I think the main reason I find the idea of cloning so repugnant is because I can’t help casting my imagination forward into a world that has descended to the bottom of the slippery slope and made cloning humans legal. Not to say human cloning isn’t already happening in a back room somewhere far from our prying eyes. One need look no further than a photo of Kim Jong-un, the dictator of North Korea and one of his late ‘father’ Kim Jung Il to suspect the elder may have taken a trip across the border to South Korea (where much of the world’s cloning happens, including that of clients of My Friend Again). I kid. A clone takes as long to grow up as a person conceived the old fashioned way, and Dolly the sheep, the first cloned mammal (that we know of…) was born in 1996. And as baby faced cute as ‘lil Kim is, there is no way he’s 16 years old, even if Wikipedia uncertainly identifies his birth date as ‘January 8, 1983 or 1984’.
Hello, Dolly! Goodbye, Dolly! (she died in 2003)
As much as I love my Theo, I would not ever want to have him cloned, for the following reasons:
1. fear of disappointment that the copy would not be as good as the original due to either real or perceived inferiority (like a movie sequel)
2. cloning a horse instead of trying a whole new animal with its unique physical and temperamental qualities suggests to me a profound lack of imagination
3. cloning a performance horse is an insult to the world of breeders who deserve our deep respect for producing horses like Hickstead, Valegro (and my Theo)
(Theo with my good friend Bridget at the show last week where they won the Pacific Regional Third Level Championship)