Chai’s death came unexpectedly — a freak accident of sorts after she swallowed a piece of a wrapper that got lodged in her intestines.
When the beloved 5-year-old cat died in 2017, there was nothing her owner, Kelly Anderson, could do — or so she thought.
Chai’s body had not yet turned cold when Anderson remembered a conversation with her roommate about the Texas-based ViaGen Pets, one of just a few companies worldwide that clones pets. The next morning, she called them.
Some $25,000 and five years later, Anderson — a 32-year-old dog trainer from Austin — has a 6-month-old carbon copy of Chai curled up in her lap. Belle is nearly identical to Chai, down to her deep-blue eyes and fluffy white coat. The two cats share a couple of quirks, like sleeping with their bodies stretched out against Anderson’s back. But that’s where the similarities end, Anderson said.
Although clones carry the same genetic material, they are not the same animal — after all, they do not carry the same memories and experiences that turned the original creatures into adored pets. It’s a bit like resetting a phone: While the model and technology are one and the same, all the data has been wiped out.
More than 25 years after the controversial Dolly the sheep case, Anderson is part of a growing group of people paying a small fortune to clone their pets. But while scientific advancement has allowed the practice to become more commercial, the procedure itself raises ethical dilemmas, experts say.
The process of cloning is relatively simple, said CheMyong “Jay” Ko, a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s comparative biosciences department.
It starts with a couple of cells from the pet’s tissue, usually from the ear or belly. In a lab, the cells are then placed into a concoction of enzymes to pluck out the DNA. Next, scientists retrieve an unfertilized egg from another donor animal. Then, the egg’s nucleus is removed with a “teeny, tiny needle,” Ko said, and swapped with the nucleus of the pet’s cells. The new egg, which carries the pet’s DNA, is placed in a mixture with the nutrients usually found in a uterus, culturing them until they can become embryos to be implanted into a surrogate.
If everything turns out right, the surrogate will carry the pregnancy to term — and boom, a clone is born.
The problem is that cloning does not have a 100 percent success rate. Not all pregnancies will be fruitful and not all embryos will be viable, which means several surrogate and egg donor animals may be used in the process.
Because cloning is not a natural process, there can be abnormalities in the embryos that lead to miscarriages or death just after birth, Ko said.
“People think, ‘Oh, I’ll just press a button and out will come Fido,’ but that’s just not the case,” said Robert Klitzman, director of the masters of bioethics program at Columbia University. “So you may love Fido, but do you really want several animals to die and suffer in order to have the one healthy Fido?”
Another concern, Klitzman said, is the “naive notion that the clone will be the same and that you’ll have the same emotional relationship.”
“I can either pay thousands of dollars to create a new pet that’s actually going to have a different history and personality,” he said. “Or maybe I could adopt an animal that would otherwise be killed in a shelter. Those are things that ethically need to be considered.”
Losing a pet can be devastating, but cloning “may not allow one to process the grief and to then develop a relationship with another being,” Klitzman said. And thinking of the clone as a sort of substitution places an unfair expectation on the new animal, he added.
But Anderson said she never expected Belle to be a Chai 2.0.
“I’ve always told people that I cloned, not because I wanted to bring my cat back to life, but because I wanted to carry on a piece of her, and I think it’s definitely really comforting to have that in Belle,” Anderson said. “Even though they’re different cats, there’s still a piece of Chai in her. So it’s comforting in a way that I don’t really know how to explain.”
In a way, Belle is enjoying the life Chai never knew. Because of a long list of illnesses she had when she was young, Chai never got to experience the joy of her kittenhood, Anderson said. Instead of socializing and playing, the first five months of her life were spent under treatment — maybe contributing to her “very reserved and standoffish” personality, she said.
The fact that her relatively difficult life was cut short — plus, tests showing that none of her illnesses were genetic — was what prompted Anderson to clone her.
“It’s a bit about giving her a second chance,” she said.
Another reason, Anderson said, was the deep attachment she had to Chai — a cat that served as beloved companion and source of hope when she was struggling with depression.
That same love has prompted others, including singer Barbra Streisand, to clone their pets. But with the hefty price tag, some have resorted to extraordinary means to pay for the procedure — such as trading in vehicles or selling rare artwork.
ViaGen Pets clones dogs for $50,000 and cats for $35,000. For those still undecided, the company also offers to store and preserve pets’ cells for $1,600 — an amount that is included in the total cloning cost.
ViaGen was founded in 2002 as livestock cloning company, duplicating horses, cows and pigs. They began preserving pet DNA that year but didn’t begin cloning dogs and cats until 2015 — after a South Korean company had successfully done so.
About 10 percent of all of ViaGen Pets’ customers who’ve preserved their pets’ DNA ultimately take the leap, said Melain Rodriguez, the company’s client service manager. But for the other 90 percent who have preserved cells, “there’s no length of time that they have to be used by,” she said.
“We have clients that have stored cells with us for 17 years, and are cloning now,” Rodriguez said. “So you’ve got a puppy now that was from a dog that was alive 25 years ago, which is a really incredible thing to think about.”
ViaGen Pets does not disclose how many clones it has created, but Rodriguez said “it’s in the hundreds” — a number that has “grown every year” since 2015.
“I don’t think it’s something that’s ever going to be very commonplace where every dog is cloned, but I think it’s going to definitely increase and become more popular as the years go on,” she said.
Rodriguez acknowledged that pet cloning remains controversial, but said the animals involved are “loved and taken care of” — including the surrogate mothers, who can be adopted after a clone’s birth. ViaGen also warns clients they won’t get replicas of their old pets, Rodriguez said.
“We counsel our clients and make sure they understand what they’re getting into,” she said. “And I think the easiest way that we can put it is that it’s an identical twin — just born at a different time.”
Watching Belle play with her dogs and refuse to stay still for a Zoom interview brings a wave of deja vu for Anderson. It’s bittersweet, she says. Yet at the same time, there’s so much about the new kitten that has her “over the moon.”
“I don’t think that you ever stop missing someone that you love,” she said. “Of course I miss her every day. I think over time that’s dulled down, but that’s just part of grief and how that works.”