Near the end of my conversation with Jae Woong Wang, a researcher and spokesperson for South Korea's Sooam Biotech, he asks me to tell the world that they shouldn't stuff any recently deceased pets they hope to have cloned in freezers. It renders cell matter impossible to harvest, which isn't good news if you're in the business of cat and dog duplicates. It's hard to let a grieving family down easy, especially after they've made the day-long trip across the Pacific only to discover their newly dead companion won't be getting a genome-generated second chance.
"You have to preserve the body as long as possible without freezing," says Wang. "That's a mistake a lot of people make. When water freezes, it punctures all the cells, and the chances of cloning becomes extremely low. It's a frustration we're constantly dealing with."
Sooam Biotech's founder, Hwang Woo-suk, ran into significant controversy in 2004 when he fraudulently claimed to have cloned human embryos, but the company has stayed in the business for over ten years. Sooam has fulfilled contracts with the commercial farming industry—cloning livestock for breeding and bottom-line purposes—but its pet cloning division is a marketplace built on a more spiritual communion. It'll take $100,000 to reunite with a reincarnated version of an animal you loved.
Its cloning process is more straightforward than you might think. A Sooam clerk will meet you at the Seoul airport and retrieve a fingernail-length biopsy of your dead pet's flesh. A donor dog or cat is selected from the company's kennel. Their eggs are flushed out, gutted of their genetic information, and fused with DNA harvested from the biopsy. If the process works, the retrofitted egg is inserted into a surrogate mother. "Until the point where they actually meet the dog, [the customer] is in a very happy disbelief," says Wang. "But once we deliver the dog, they usually burst into tears."
The jury is still out on what a clone actually is. It's a conundrum that's raged ever since Dolly, the famous duplicated sheep, was brought into the world in 1996. Genetically, they'll be a mirror image of the source animal, an asexually wrought son or daughter built in the flash of nuclear transfer. But will the clone share the same emotions or personality tics? That's difficult to say. Research on cloned cows and pigs has shown distinct differences in personality—and even looks—from the animal of origin to its clone.
As such, New York Magazine's Science of Us blog called pet cloning "a laughable, extravagant waste of money," when news broke last year that media tycoon Barry Diller and fashion mogul Diane von Furstenberg had their Jack Russell terrier cloned, even though the wealthy power couple seemed pleased with the two puppies they got as a result. And, in an interview with Scientific American, stem cell biologist Robin Lovell-Badge maintained that cloning a pet was, flatly, "stupid." "You're never gonna get Tibble back, or whatever," he added.
But companies like Sooam deal in love—or more specifically, the faint chance that you might love again. Because losing a dog or a cat is really goddamn rough. "A beloved pet is much like a family member," reads the pitch on ViaGen Pets, a Texas-based commercial cloning outlet that offers a pet-cloning service. "The unique life-enriching bond, the love and companionship—a truly special pet provides us a unique sense of comfort and life-enriching fulfillment that is nearly impossible to extend beyond your pet's natural lifespan. Until now."
It was a convincing enough argument for Doug and Michelle Shields, and their fluffy white Maltese, Guinevere. Gwen lived 16 and a half years before she died after a seizure. The Shields had mulled the idea of preserving her genes in the past, but it wasn't until the fresh aftermath of her death that they made the decision to start the cloning process. (Luckily, the veterinarian put Gwen's carcass in a refrigerator, not a freezer or a cremator.)
"We're what you'd deem to be animal people. We have a parrot and another dog we adopted," says Michelle. "But Gwen was just an amazing, amazing, amazing dog. Just unbelievable. She just had a personality. Everyone loved her. There was no replacing her. So if I could get her back, or her personality traits, I would do anything to do that."
The Shields reached out to PerPETuate, an animal genome preservation business run by Ron Gillespie, who used to work at the cattle genetics company ABS Global. Right now, he's partnering with ViaGen, and recently, its laboratory delivered four clones sourced from a genome Gillespie first harvested in 2000. He happily preserved Gwen's DNA, and the Shields family is currently deep in the cloning process, one Gillespie remains optimistic about.
"[Customers] see the whole procedure as a healing journey."
"Dog owners [throughout history] have said, 'This is the best dog I've ever had,' and I'm going to breed them with another dog to get a puppy that's as closed to [the original] as possible," Gillespie says. "That's a very natural, common thing. Selective breeding has been going on for years. This is the ultimate breeding tool. You're not just getting half of the genes; you're getting 100 percent of them. It's an understandable step in the evolution of breeding."
Gillespie's currently working with a client with an autistic son who finds peace in the presence of an old family cat. The client is, of course, terrified of what might happen after the cat dies. He's tried other animals (and other cats), but nothing musters the same pacifying effect. So instead, he holds out hope that maybe he can give his son some peace with a long line of duplicates.
"This cat is of exceptional value to this boy and to this family," says Gillespie. "They tried the brother of this cat, and the boy totally rejected his brother. So they're going to clone him. And what's gonna happen? Is this cat gonna be able to substitute? If it is, think about the significance of that. People don't think in those terms. They just think it's just rich people with a lot of money."
Gillespie tells me that 2017 has been one of the busiest years for PerPETuate since he started the business in '98, and speculates eventually pet cloning will become more common as the prices get more affordable. He thinks ViaGen is a good first step, as they offer a cloning service domestically for $50,000—a bargain compared to Sooam's six-figure entry fee. But obviously, that price will have to come down quite a bit more for cloning to truly hit the mainstream.
In a way, Gillespie has been banking on cloning become more accessible for the entirety of his career, since his business is basically built around preserving genomes for an era where it does become more economically viable for the average pet lover. Until then, it's not just the Diane von Furstenbergs of the world who are writing big checks to bring back their beloved pooches: As of the fall of '15, Sooam Biotech estimated it had cloned some 600 dogs, not all of which had wealthy owners. Jae Woong Wang tells me some of their customers liquidate assets to afford the cloning process. Priorities tend to shift in the midst of grieving.
ViaGen's testimonial section illustrates that, no matter the cost, its customers believe it's money well spent—dozens of former clients there have drafted sonnets in tribute of the preserved genomes of their dead pets and the hopes for the possible clones they may one day produce. "They see the whole procedure as a healing journey," says Wang. "At first it's very difficult—your dog just passed away, you have to go to a vet to get a biopsy done and send it over, or sometimes travel here. You have to wait for us to give the confirmation that the cells are OK. All of that is very, very stressful. But once they actually have the puppy, that's when they unload."
Michelle and Doug Shields just want their dog back, and look at the price tag as a worthy luxury. Some more time with Gwen is a far more important splurge to them than a trip to Italy or a Country Club membership. Michelle says that most of her friends understand, because they all loved Gwen too. "We're just people who really love our dog," Michelle says.
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