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01/12/2005

Cloning Beloved Pets is the Least of Our Problems

Pet cloning is now officially a commercial enterprise. For the price of $50,000, a Texas woman commissioned a clone of her beloved cat Nicky, and today she is the proud owner of that cats genetic twin, aka Little Nicky. The creation and sale of Little Nicky has sparked intense criticism from bioethicists across the country, who label the pet cloning venture everything from frivolous to reprehensible. But in the unregulated land of animal biotechnology, cloning pets for devout animal lovers seems like the least of our animal welfare problems.

The most serious concern critics raise about pet cloning is the suffering of the clones, which are sometimes born with health problems or dont survive past infancy. But cloning science is advancing so rapidly that the survival rates and general health of clones are beginning to mirror animals naturally conceived. So this will soon be a non-starter.

What criticisms remain? The most common complaint is that its wrong to spend $50,000 to clone a pet when millions of unwanted animals are euthanized in shelters each year. This is an odd argument for a lot of reasons. First, theres nothing different about this use of money and any other luxury purchase the money could always be better spent if put towards noble causes like fighting world hunger or curing AIDS. This fact doesnt make pet cloning any different ethically that boat-buying. And why would a person who was devoted to a particular animal be more obligated than the rest of us to save others of that species let alone members of other species? Finally, the criticism misses the point of pet cloning: pet owners dont want just any old cat. They see their original animal as a unique being, not one thats exchangeable. They spend the money on cloning because the closest they can come to getting that particular animal back is having the identical twin of their beloved pet.

If animal welfare worries are truly the motivation for critiquing cat cloning, then the concern is misplaced. Little Nicky, and other clones like him, will thrive and end up being some of the most pampered pets in America. What ought to really worry us is an animal biotechnology industry that is wholly unregulated and may have more imagination than good sense. The real Frankenpets are just around the corner: transgenic animals and chimeras that will be conglomerations of different species spliced together. The Glofish and Alba the Green Bunny are just the first in a long line. These animals will make run-of-the-mill cat cloning seem dull. But how much will these strange animals suffer? How will these animals impact other animals or the ecosystem? If we are going to put animal cloning on our moral agenda, its not pet cloning that we should worry about. — Autumn Fiester [guest post; Prof. Fiester runs the Penn Masters in Bioethics program]

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