Last week the TLC network broadcast a fluffy documentary called "I Cloned My Pet" which followed the travails of three bereaved dog lovers. Peter Onruang and Wolfie were featured on this blog last March. Danielle Tarantola lives in Staten Island, with a mural of her late dog Trouble. And Sheryl Anderson is doing a 10-year sentence for gun-running (and likely other complications), but as the show opened was both awaiting sentence and in the process of having her old dog Blue cloned in Korea.
Tarantola was featured on Nightline and Anderson Cooper in the run-up to the TLC show, presumably as the most attractive (and perhaps available) of the three. Nightline did a better job in six minutes than TLC did in an hour of at least mentioning some of the issues in this "highly controversial industry." They also revealed that Tarantola got a 50% price break because the story was going to be featured on TV. She would have paid the full $100,000, she said (though the show's storyline had her scrambling for the cash), but "I got a deal!"
Inexplicably unmentioned on either TLC or Nightline is that the work on the dogs was done by Hwang Woo-suk, at his Sooam clinic. He is the Korean scientist who scored worldwide headlines when he claimed to have derived human embryonic stem cells from a cloned embryo but was disgraced (and criminally convicted) when his work was proved to be fraudulent; he's back to cloning animals now, and hoping to be allowed to work on humans. Hwang's involvement is confirmed by the image above, which we cropped from a Nightline screenshot. So, one amusing aspect of this farrago is that the great publicist cut his price and got cut out of the publicity.
It seems that simultaneous surrogate pregnancies are part of the dog-cloning technique, so these may be two-for-one deals. Tarantola's new dog is Double Trouble, and, yes, Triple Trouble is coming right along. Onruang's is called Wolfie, and another Wolfie is on the way; he seems to be using the George Foreman naming scheme. The dog we saw visiting Anderson, on a special canine visiting-rights pass, is called Blue Frankenstein II (hey, that was the doctor, not the monster), though previous press omitted the numeral and on the TLC website there is a reference to "Sheryl's first cloned version of Blue" (Blue No. 1). The program was, shall we say, structured for dramatic effect.
It's easy to ridicule the TV program, with its obviously massaged storylines. (Not to mention the dog whisperer with a message from beyond the grave.) And it's almost as easy, though meaner, to poke fun at the humans who are willing to spend a small fortune on an effort to bring a loved pet back from the dead. But they can't, not at any price. The clones they bought are similar to the previous animals, but not the same, whatever a grief-stricken owner may hope. And the real cost is not just financial.
Dogs are hurt, and often killed, by the process. Most clones develop abnormally, and the few that are born alive are often sickly, and many die in hours or days. The one company set up specifically to sell dog cloning left the business because they could not predict the results and they could not guarantee the welfare of the dozen or dogs needed to produce one saleable clone. No wonder the Humane Society says, "Pet cloning is NOT for pet lovers."
Reaction to the TV show seems to be strongly negative. Jezebel highlighted "the abuse of animals" and called it heartwrenching. And the inital comments at TLC's site were entirely one-sided: several said the channel should be ashamed, others asked what happens to the surrogates, some called the show "disturbing" and "disgusting," and at least one complained that it promoted animal cruelty, torture and death.
For more, see John Woestendiek's blog and check his archives. He wrote a good book on the subject, and was interviewed by Nightline where he raised both animal-welfare issues and the slippery slope toward human reproductive cloning.
There is important research to be done into cellular development and even regeneration. That science, unlike reproductive cloning, might eventually lead to medically useful technologies. But TV programs like this one are worse than a waste of time because they make the indefensible seem reasonable. Pet cloning is a cruel sham.