There was a story in the New York Times on January 1st about cloning pets. (”Beloved Pets Everlasting?” by Eric Konigsberg) One of the pet owners waxed poetically about the desirability of enjoying their dog for the equivalent of a human lifetime, as opposed to a dog lifetime. Hmmmm.
Personally, I have a hard time believing that it is possible to ‘clone’ an animal and recreate the same exact set of emotions and personality.
But I will admit that the cloning scenario breathes new life into the old nature vs. nurture debate: Are we (or our pets) the sum of a lifetime of experiences or simply the product of our genes? Or a mixture of both? I opt for the latter, in which case 100% duplication is not possible. Is it?
If we had not adopted a little Jack Russell Terrier recently, I might not be thinking about this at all. He is so friendly to adults and children alike we tend to think he has been very well treated throughout his life, if not genuinely loved. But as far as we can tell, we are his third, possibly his fourth owners. Why has he been passed around so much? It is a riddle.
When I look at him, I can’t help but think that the experiences we have with him today and tomorrow will be unique because he is (and we are). Therefore, the idea of trying to artificially extend our life with him or any beloved pet after its death — through a cloning procedure — strikes me as unrealistic.
Are attempts to clone pets an expression of their owners’ desire to exert superhuman control over mortal events? It sounds a bit like that. But, as an old friend of mine used to ask, how does that affect the price of tea in China? So, let’s just say it seems sad and ironic that in the USA where 5-7 million cats and dogs are being surrendered to shelters every year (like our own little terrier pal) and 3-4 million of them are being euthanized, there is money to be made in cloning dead pets.
Even if I took a hands-off position, “Caveat Emptor. It is not my business if someone wants to spend $150,000 to clone a pet,” I have to believe there is no such thing as replicating a dog’s personality in a cloning experiment. A pet’s personality (not unlike ours) will be a sum of genes and experience and the temperament and knowledge that grows out of that immeasurable brew.
In the case of our dog, we knew he would have a high energy requirement because he is a Jack Russell Terrier and they are thoroughly energetic. We expected him to be an intelligent little guy because his breed is known to be very smart. What we did not expect is that he would have a prenaturally calm disposition and be so well-prepared to bond with us at the relatively advanced age of eight (which is roughly middle age for a JRT).
When we got him, all we knew for sure was that he was loveable. We had no idea that he would insist on welcoming every single person he meets on the street, that he would invariably greet babies by licking their nose, that he would sit rockstill on my lap for hours at a time while I worked on a computer, or that he would be capable of sleeping through the night for eight or more hours curled in a ball on my pillow. These are the unexpected delights and we cannot imagine another dog, never mind a clone, replicating his generous spirit. Maybe that is the way it should be.
Sandy Bodner on January 6th 2009 in Essays