Should I Have Had My Cat Cryonically Preserved?

As a transhumanist, I struggled with what to do when my pet cat Ollie died.

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Apr 19 2016, 12:00pm

Ollie. Photo: Zoltan Istvan

I recently made the agonizing decision to euthanize my cat Ollie, who I adopted 13 years before from the streets.

Ollie had barely eaten or drank anything for five days and was dying from kidney failure. The veterinarian told me Ollie would probably be dead in 24 hours and suggested euthanizing him, so that his death wasn't caused by choking or something horrible like that when other organs failed. I reluctantly agreed.

Pet euthanasia generally includes a heavy morphine-based sedative that peacefully knocks the animal out, followed by a heart stopper-chemical injection. We euthanized Ollie on his favorite couch in my home. While the process seemed painless and quick, it was absolutely heartbreaking for my family and me.

The next 25 years may end pet relationships as we know them

Days after the death, a number of transhumanist friends consoled me and told me of their own dealings with pet deaths. Since I'm a life extension advocate, I'm well-versed in procedures for dealing with (and avoiding) human death. But I didn't really know much about pets.

It turns out many transhumanists have already thought of these and some have even undergone cryonic procedures with their animals—the process where they cryogenically freeze their pets in hopes to resurrect them in the future when the technology becomes available. The Michigan-based Cryonics Institute has 120 frozen pets.

Christine Gaspar, a nurse and longtime cryonicist, is one friend who did this. She froze her cat at the Cryonics Institute, and the process cost her about $5,700, she told me.

I thought deeply about doing this with Ollie, but decided against it for a few reasons—reasons I hope I won't later regret in my life as the world and technology rapidly advances.

To begin with, I was a little late in the process with Ollie. It was already 24 hours after he died that I began considering cryonics for him, and, like humans, the cryonics process works best if it's begun within hours of death—especially to preserve the brain and its memories. Also, $5,700 is quite a chunk of cash—plus there are yearly maintenance costs. Additionally, my kids are already yearning for another pet, and my parents have had seven different pets so far in their lives.

Ollie. Photo: Zoltan Istvan

With this mind, I even considered the cheaper preservation methods, where a bucket filled with formaldehyde, glutereldahyde, or some other solution is used to preserve the pet. Then one can just keep the body in their garage. In this procedure, at least much of the tissue, bones, and organs might be able to be salvaged in the future when trying to reanimate the animal. Some people even stuff their pet or freeze-dry them to keep them in their house, looking as if they were almost alive.

In the end, I passed on all these options and opted for a normal burial of Ollie in my backyard, which my young daughters and wife attended.

The truth is I tend to believe I'll be merged with AI in about 30-40 years—and soon entering the Singularity afterward—so the idea of loving a cat indefinitely seemed less tangible.

I also wondered if in the future, we'd be able—and maybe even obligated—to make our pets hyper-intelligent via cranial implant technology and radical genetics. Then the animal, like an adult offspring, becomes intelligent enough to make its own decisions. What if Ollie didn't want to live? Or be so intelligent? Or even be my pet anymore? Such is the weird world of transhumanist thinking—and the future many of us will face in the coming decades.

Either way, Ollie's death started me down exploring the road of technology and science we are going to impose on the creatures we love. It turns out the pet industry is exploding with transhuman—or if you will, transanimal—themes. Most of these have nothing to do with death, but instead have to do with giving animals a better life so humans can enjoy them more.

For starters, an entire cottage industry on pet-tech wearables has emerged, with numerous start-ups already competing in the space. Motherboard reported there will likely be exhibition space specifically dedicated at CES 2017 to pet tech. Currently, the leading wearables are Fitbit-like devices that help monitor dogs' whereabouts and health.

Of course, pets have long had RFID chip implants to help locate them, and their success has led the way of implants into humans—such as the one I now have in my hand. But the future of tech for pets is also developing too. There are devices like TailTalk and the KYON collar that can supposedly tell you about your animal's mood. Some companies have even launched projects to try to directly read the brain waves of pets, so one day you might be able to discuss Plato's Allegory of a Cave—or the adventures of Garfield.

As cool as some of the tech coming out for pets is, the world is headed for a massive transformation about how and what it wants in its future pets. CRISPR gene editing is already here, and the idea of creating a pet dinosaur is no longer a pipe dream. In fact, MIT Technology Review reports that Chinese scientists have already created "designer pets."

It's possible in just a few years time we will be creating new creatures that contain the very best elements pets have. Shed-less dogs. Uber-cuddly cats. Melodic singing songbirds. Why not combine them? Why not add some reptilian genes too, for excitement? In fact, why not just make a make a mini-Brontosaurus?

The author's 20-month-old daughter with Ollie shortly after he was euthanized. Photo: Zoltan Istvan

Of course, the other type of future pet will be created by secretive company Magic Leap, where sensors on your ceiling can put out a holographic pet image that you can interact with and order around. Why not have an eight-foot tall Tyrannosaurs Rex inside to scare off burglars when they break in? Or a 30-foot anaconda? Or a pack of wolves? Best yet, you can program the holographic wolves to take turns reading your toddlers The Three Little Pigs.

The future of transhuman pets, though, is not holographic or biological. It's robotic. The field of robotic dogs already available on the market is massive. There are a few dozen companies and types of robotic dogs out there. Some of these machines are designed to be legitimate guard dogs, and can offer real security via movement tracking mechanisms and security software. In the near future, some will offer Skype abilities, so you can see through cameras in their eyes what's happening in your house—like if your child is playing with the stove. Other robot dogs will have built in fire alarms that can register smoke in a child's room or spot a poisonous spider in the dark crawling on a bed crib.

In probably just five years, robot dogs will be so sophisticated they will walk our children to school, carry our groceries for us from the car, and probably even have built in drone capabilities to fly. We'll program them to catch rats but not fight with the neighbor's cat. They won't need to be fed, they'll know how to recharge themselves, and gone forever will be the days of shoveling dog poo. And of course, they'll easily beat us in chess.

Some new pet robots have fake fur too. In the future, we can expect robotic pets to have non-shedding, clean smelling fur that is dirt resistant and looks just like a real pet. And the pet's bodies will be soft and padded, with heat creating capabilities to keep you warm at night when it sleeps with you.

Like so many other things technology is changing for the human race, the central role pets play in our lives will also change. The domestication of animals has evolved for thousands of years, but the next 25 years may end pet relationships as we know them. While I'm still a little unsure whether I should've cryo-preserved my cat, I think Ollie would've found it strange to be brought back to a world with chess-playing robot dogs, holographic wolves in the living room, and mini-Tyrannosaurus Rexs cruising around the backyard.

Zoltan Istvan is a futurist, author of The Transhumanist Wager, and presidential candidate of the Transhumanist Party. He writes an occasional column for Motherboard in which he ruminates on the future beyond natural human ability.