By Susannah Cahalan, New York Post
They can clone Spot, but he’s never the same dog
by John Woestendiek
Bernann McKinney loves her dog more than most people love their kids.
When McKinney’s black pit bull Booger passed away, she refused to move on and find a new pet. No dog could replace him. So she decided to have him cloned.
“They’re just like Booger,” she cried when she saw them.
But that was only the beginning of her obsession.
McKinney refused to put her dogs in the cargo space and, as per the airline’s rule, she could fly with only one at a time. After days of negotiating, she flew back and forth between California and South Korea with one dog on her lap at a time, eventually spending over $20,000 of her father’s money on travel.
McKinney, although an extreme example, represents the intense and sometimes irrational love that humans feel for their furry companions. Some send their dogs to massage appointments, others carry them around in $10,000 purses, and a smaller and more bizarre subset of pet owners get their four-legged friends cloned.
Author John Woestendiek focuses on this strange group of people, as well as the players involved in the clone industry, from shyster scientists to billionaire entrepreneurs, in his new book “Dog, Inc.”
It all began in 1996 with an offhand remark uttered by bored billionaire John Sperling, founder of the University of Phoenix. Dolly the sheep had just been cloned in Scotland.
“Hey, we should clone Missy,” Sperling said referring to his lover’s border collie-husky mix.
Over the years, Sperling donated millions of dollars to the effort, overseeing the cloning of a pig, a mouse, a steer and eventually a cat called Copy Cat.
But no dogs.
Canines are by nature more difficult than other animals to clone because of their opaque eggs and the fact that female dogs go into heat every six to 12 months, unlike cats, who can go into heat every three weeks.
The Americans couldn’t replicate a dog after seven years of trying, but the South Koreans did in three years. In 2005, South Korean scientists cloned the first dog, an Afghan hound named Snuppy, with the help of three dogs: an Afghan for its DNA, a farm dog for its eggs, and a lab for its womb. More than 100 dogs were also implanted with embryos. The dog cloning process was only successful .09% of the time.
The South Koreans won the battle of the clones in part because of their lack of animal rights restrictions. Scientists were able to scout out dogs at open-air bazaars, where dogs were sometimes plucked and butchered. Dog farms, where man’s best friends were raised for their meat, also provided cloning fodder. The harsh truth is that the effort to clone one pet often involves dozens of strays — from a country that more often treats dogs as food, not family members.
Seoul-based company RNL Bio continues to churn out clones and projects that the company will sell 500 dog clones annually by 2012 — and is in the process of building a $5 million facility capable of pumping out a thousand dog clones a year.
Several hundred dog clones have been created since 2005, including a beagle that glows under ultraviolet lights, a yellow lab for a NASCAR co-owner’s son, and a September 11th hero dog for a policeman in Nova Scotia.
But despite the fact that clones are 99.95% similar to the original, the copy will still “grow up with a personality and behavior all of its own.” Cloning does not recreate the original.
But what about McKinney and her dog Booger? Did she get her Booger back? Did her fairy tale come true?
“I have to say that cloning ruined my life,” McKinney said. Following the public announcements of her dog clones, her sordid history, which included her highly publicized arrest in the 1970s for kidnapping a male Mormon, came to light. It seems McKinney was a tad unbalanced.
And the dogs? The puppies do not get along with each other and had to be kept constantly caged. They all have health problems, ranging from stomach viruses to epilepsy.
“I ask myself: Did I do the right thing by cloning? Am I a bad person?” McKinney said. “All I was trying to do was have my Booger back. I was just trying to clone my friend.”