Carbon kitty's $50,000 price tag
By Maggie Shiels
Cats can now have more than nine lives thanks to a Californian company that is the first
US firm to go commercial and offer the public a pet cloning service.
Five customers have already parted with $50,000 each for a copy of their cats.
Genetic Savings & Clone says work will start in May to clone the animals, with the first kittens
arriving by November if the procedures prove successful.
CEO Lou Hawthorne told BBC News Online the company had already begun to clone three
other cats for staff members.
The "show animals" would be presented to the American Veterinary Medical Association conference next year. Mr Hawthorne expects one to be a copy of his six-month-old Bengal cat, called Tahini.
"We may have pregnancies right now. I'm keeping my fingers crossed," he said. "There are ultrasounds going on all this week."
The company does have some pedigree in this line of work.
It was involved with Texas A & M University in creating the world's first cat clone. Operation CopyCat produced Cc, short for carbon copy, which Mr Hawthorne said was now a healthy and adorable two-year-old.
" The issue with cats is not how to do it; the issue is how to do it perfectly "
However, Mr Hawthorne said feline cloning was still complex, time consuming and costly.
"The cloning, pregnancy and weaning processes take approximately six months from start to finish; the final stage being delivery of the clones to their new families.
"The issue with cats is not how to do it," he explains, "the issue is how to do it perfectly with the best quality of results."
It is believed Cc took over 80 attempts before the process worked. Mr Hawthorne claims with the new technology his company is using, the failure rate can be reduced tenfold.
An important "buyer beware" warning comes from the company itself that says it will produce unique, newborn animals; not full-grown exact replicas.
Mr Hawthorne said: "There are people out there who use the statement that cloning is reproduction not resurrection. But the interesting part from the genetic perspective is that this is resurrection.
"It is not in terms of a level of consciousness, but in terms of genetics you are getting the same animal back. Personality-wise there are differences."
Curt Youngs, an associate professor in the Animal Science Department of Iowa State University in Ames, fears that some people might be unhappy that their cloned animal is not a living reincarnation of the animal they have lost or are about to lose.
"I think people are going to be disappointed that Fluffy neither looks the same nor acts the same," he said.
" My relationships with my dogs have lasted longer than my marriage and in some cases it was a better relationship "
One of the interesting features of Cc's creation was how different her coat pattern turned out compared with that of her genetic "mother".
David Magnus, co-director of the Center for Biomedical Ethics at Stanford University, said: "The people who want this are spending huge sums of money to get their pet immortalised or to guarantee they're getting a pet exactly like the one they had before - and it's simply not possible."
Mr Hawthorne does not disagree and says anyone who is not happy will get a full refund and the animal will be put up for adoption.
As well as those who have paid to have their cats cloned, several hundred have signed up to preserve tissue from their cat or dog for future cloning.
These people pay around $900 a year plus a further $150 for maintenance costs.
Cells are harvested through a skin biopsy done by a vet who removes a coin-sized sample from the pet's stomach and inside its mouth.
Mary Ann Daniel, from Costa Mesa in California, has banked some of 19-year-old Smokey's DNA with Genetic Savings.
She said: "We had Smokey neutered at a young age. We wanted some of his offspring, so when we heard about cloning we thought it was just the perfect thing for us to do.
"We want to have a cat that has some of his characteristics. Not necessarily all of them, but
Jayne Lange, from Palo Alto, works in the biotech industry. She has also banked the DNA of
her two dogs, which are rare and ancient Japanese hunting dogs.
One called Akeya died as a result of a tumour and the other, Waka, is now five years old. Ms
Lange said she was not "a crazy animal type" but admitted her dogs meant the world to her.
"My relationships with my dogs have lasted longer than my marriage and in some cases it
was a better relationship."
Organisations like the Humane Society of the United States, an animal protection group based in Washington DC, takes issue with pet cloning when shelters kill roughly four million animals every year because they are not wanted.
It says that in most cases owners want to clone their pets because they are experiencing difficulty with the loss or eventual loss of those pets.
Animal cloning in America is not illegal - unlike human cloning. On the legislative front, the commercial launch of cat cloning has not ruffled any feathers, yet.
But opposition might not be long in rearing its head. Earlier this year, officials in California cited ethical concerns when they banned the sale of Glofish, genetically modified zebra fish that fluoresce.
Mr Hawthorne is not worried and argues the company operates to the highest standards, and believes regulation would drive out the charlatans.
Genetic Savings hopes to be cloning thousands of pets annually in five years, when the cost should be down to $10,000 for a cat and $20,000 for a dog.