It's a typical morning at the Dupont Veterinary Clinic in Lafayette, La. Dr. Phillip Dupont is caring for cats and dogs in the examining room while his wife, Paula, answers the phone and pet owners' questions. Their two dogs are sleeping on the floor behind her desk.
"That's Ken and Henry," Paula says, pointing to the slim, midsize dogs with floppy ears and long snouts. Both dogs are tan, gray and white, with similar markings. "I put a red collar on Ken and a black collar on Henry so I can tell who's who."
Ken and Henry are genetically identical, though not exact replicas. They're clones of the Duponts' last dog, Melvin — created when scientists injected one of Melvin's skin cells, which contained all of his DNA, into a donor egg that had been emptied of its original DNA.
Ken and Henry are two of only about 600 dogs that have been cloned since scientists at Sooam Biotech, a suburban company near Seoul, South Korea, developed the technology to create cloned canines.
The Duponts sat down with Shots to explain why they decided to clone Melvin.
"He was different," says Phillip Dupont. "Of all the dogs I had, he was completely different."
Melvin was supposed to be a Catahoula leopard dog, Louisiana's state dog (sometimes called a Catahoula hound). Turned out, Melvin was a mutt, probably part Catahoula and part Doberman.
"I paid $50 for him," says Phillip. "But I wasn't going to return it. I thought for a while I was going to put him to sleep." Then he changed his mind. "Turned out to be the best dog I ever owned."
The Duponts have lots of stories about what made Melvin the best dog they ever owned, including the time Melvin found car keys Phillip had lost in the tall grass. The couple trusted the dog so much they let him babysit their grandson in the backyard all by himself.
"He listened," says Phillip. "You could talk to him and you swore he understood what you were talking about. It was weird."
So a couple of years ago, when Melvin was about 9 and starting to show his age, the Duponts turned to a lab in South Korea. Even though the process would cost them $100,000, the couple decided to do it. They'd already spent that much on a Humvee, Phillip notes. "So, what the heck?"
He sent some of Melvin's skin cells off to the lab — the only place in the world that is cloning dogs for pet owners. The first cloned puppy soon died from distemper. The lab tried again, this time producing two healthy clones.
For a while it was like having three Melvins. The personalities of the dogs, the Duponts say, are very similar. But less than two years later, Melvin's time came.
"It was hard," says Phillip, choking back tears.
Having the clones — Ken and Henry — helped the couple cope with the loss.
"They come running through the house and jump in your lap — a 75-pound dog sitting in your lap, watching TV." They still miss Melvin, they say, but having two more dogs so similar to him has helped "quite a bit."
Most of the dogs cloned so far have been for grieving pet owners. Some have been for police agencies looking for special skills — bomb-sniffing, for example.
But not everyone thinks this idea is so great.
"If you love dogs and you really want to have your companion animal cloned, you really do need to take very seriously the health and well-being of all the dogs that would be involved in this process," says Insoo Hyun, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University.
To clone a dog you need to use a lot of other dogs to serve as egg donors and surrogates, Hyun explains, and that means many dogs are undergoing surgical procedures. Most of the time the process doesn't work; many attempts are required to produce a single clone.
"I think there are probably better ways to spend $100,000 if you really care about animals," Hyun says.
He also wonders about the health of Sooam's cloned puppies. Most cloned animals end up pretty sickly — all that for a dog that isn't even an exact replica of the original.
"All cloning does is reproduce the genome of your original pet," Hyun explains.
"But maybe the way your dog interacted with you — and even the way it looks — was also strongly environmentally influenced." You can never duplicate that kind of influence, Hyun says.
When pressed about how much the clones are really alike, the Duponts admit there are little differences, much as differences show up among identical twins. The white stripe on Henry's nose is a lot wider than Ken's, and Henry weighs a bit less. Ken is more of a loner. But that's about it for differences, the couple insists.
"They're so much like Melvin it's unreal," Phillip Dupont says. So far, he adds, both clones seem perfectly healthy.
As far as whether other dogs suffered in creating theirs — the Duponts dismiss that notion, based on what they saw at the lab when they visited twice to pick up their clones.
"Even though South Koreans eat dogs, they love their pets," Phillip says. "They've got rooms for these dogs to sleep in, with beds. They've got technicians who sleep with the dogs. And [the dogs] are all well cared for."
He says the lab staff told him that after dogs have served as donors or surrogates, "they're fixed up and go to new homes." (Sooam Biotech did not confirm or deny that assertion when NPR asked what happens to the dogs the company uses as donors and surrogates).
The Duponts also say they don't feel bad about spending so much money to create cloned dogs, when so many other dogs need homes.
There will always be strays on the road and too many dogs at the animal shelter, because irresponsible owners don't spay or neuter their pets, Paula says. In contrast, she says, families that clone their pets don't do it "with the idea of producing 10 more. We're looking at having the one special dog again."
Or, in their case, two special dogs again, and maybe one more. The Duponts are already talking about cloning Melvin again — for their grandson.
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