Mind Matters Natural and Artificial Intelligence News and Analysis
the-girl-hugs-the-basenji-dog-stockpack-adobe-stock
The girl hugs the basenji dog.
Photo licensed via Adobe Stock

Animal Mind — Can You Clone Your Beloved Pet’s Personality?

People who can charge a great deal for cloning insist that the personality is not cloned… so why do it?

Michael Egnor has noted that the famous philosopher René Descartes (1596–1650) thought that animals were biological machines that did not have minds at all. Many arguments can be mustered against that view but the recent development of animal cloning may prove a new one.

Barbra Streisand brought attention to the business of cloning deceased pets when she had her dog Samantha cloned in 2018 (though the process had been available for more than a decade).

The cost? US$35,000 for a cat, $50,000 for a dog, and $85,000 for a horse. That’s hardly spare change yet, we are told, some less well-heeled folk will put off a new car or down payment to bring back a deceased companion:

Kelly Anderson never planned to clone Chai. But when tragedy took her beloved 5-year-old Ragdoll in 2017, a mere two weeks after she learned of a Cedar Park biotech company helping the bereaved resurrect their pets, she felt it was fate. Four years later, she brought home Belle, the spitting image of her beverage-named bestie.

Emma Schkloven, “Pet Cloning Becomes A Reality” at Austin Monthly (June 10, 2022)

Anderson now runs a monetized Instagram account featuring the clone, Belle. Texas-based ViaGen, launched 2015 — believed to be the only US pet cloning firm — is said to have “duplicated” hundreds of such animals, including ferrets and horses. Popular Mechanics describes the general procedure.

But what are the grieving humans getting for their money?

Well, a live animal, really:

Just don’t expect every aspect of your pet to return. While they look nearly identical, down to the thick fluffy white coat and icy blue eyes, Chai’s and Belle’s personalities are polar opposites—a common occurrence, since environment determines character as much as genetics. Where Chai was more reserved, 10-month-old Belle enjoys exploring the capital city’s breweries and murals via her custom-printed backpack. Still, certain moments lend a sense of déjà vu, like the way Belle sleeps back-to-back with her human. “The first time, it snapped me right back,” [Kelly] Anderson says.

Emma Schkloven, “Pet Cloning Becomes A Reality” at Austin Monthly (June 10, 2022)

Now, if the grieving human feels much better on account of paying for a clone, no one can tell her that it isn’t worthwhile. But Anderson did not get her beloved pet back.

Even ViaGen’s company spokesperson Melain Rodriguez subtly acknowledges that fact:

Sometimes there are quirks that the clone has that are eerily similar to the original pet, Rodriguez said. She’s heard customers say their clone has the exact same favorite toy as the original, or loves to sit in the exact same spot in the yard. They make for good anecdotes, but could just be coincidences.

Personality is a mix of genetics and environment, explained Rodriguez. “We caution the client to not expect a reincarnation of the original pet.”

Alix Martichoux, “Do cloned pets actually look and act like the original?” at MSN (May 15, 2022)

Maybe coincidence, maybe innate, or maybe a natural preference that most dogs or cats would have. What it is not is the self of the lost pet come back again. One argument that more intelligent animals like dogs or cats do indeed have a minimal self is that the pet’s “self” can’t be cloned.

“No justification” for pet cloning, say scientists, animal welfare officials

Some scientists and bioethicists find the whole business of cloning pets unsettling:

Lovell-Badge argues that there is “no justification” for pet cloning as while the resulting animals will be genetically identical, they will not have the same behavioural characteristics and personalities as all creatures are a product of both genes and their environment.

“People really want their pet that knows them and knows certain tricks and so forth,” says George Church, professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School. “In that sense, it’s a little bit taking advantage of people’s grief.”

David Cox, “The people cloning their pets” at BBC Future (March 22, 2022)

The Humane Society outright opposes it:

“The Humane Society of the United States opposes cloning of any animals for commercial purposes due to major animal welfare concerns. Companies that offer to clone pets profit off of distraught pet lovers by falsely promising a replica of a beloved pet. With millions of deserving dogs and cats in need of a home, pet cloning is completely unnecessary,” said Vicki Katrinak, the animal research issues program manager at the society.

We Can Clone Pet Dogs – But is that a Good Idea?” at National Geographic (February 28, 2018)

The Humane Society has a point. Genes were only a part of what made a beloved pet special. If you went to a shelter and adopted a dog with a similar temperament to a late animal friend, you’d probably have the same luck or better as with a clone — for far less money. Plus, you’d be giving another hopeful dog a chance in that vacated adoption spot…

Since Dolly the Sheep was first cloned in 1996, cloning has been used in livestock breeding and there have been some successes in cloning endangered animals, including, for example Przewalski’s horse, a type of wild horse cloned in 2020 for the San Diego Zoo. That’s probably a more realistic use of the technology.


You may also wish to read:

Do any dogs go to heaven? If so, why? Neuroscientist Christof Koch was troubled as a child by the Catholic tradition that dogs like his beloved Purzel did not go to heaven. Ironically, human exceptionalism, which Koch decries, holds out the possibility that some beloved animals may indeed share immortality with humans.


Denyse O'Leary

Denyse O'Leary is a freelance journalist based in Victoria, Canada. Specializing in faith and science issues, she has published two books on the topic: Faith@Science and By Design or by Chance? She has written for publications such as The Toronto Star, The Globe & Mail, and Canadian Living. She is co-author, with neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist's Case for the Existence of the Soul. She received her degree in honors English language and literature.

Animal Mind — Can You Clone Your Beloved Pet’s Personality?