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Unless you've been living on another planet for the last decade, you'll have heard something about the controversy surrounding the long predicted and now real technology to clone animals.
Next month sees the twelfth anniversary of the birth of the very first successfully cloned animal, Dolly the sheep. Slowed more by red tape than technical ability, the subsequent years have brought both discussion on and the practice of cloning a number of other animals.
Many people would agree that this technology has wonderful potential for many areas, including the preservation of endangered species, but even this part of the discussion is not without controversy as many feel that the problem is more with the destruction of environment than anything else.
Jurassic Park style revival of long extinct animals is still not possible with current technology; however there has been real discussion about bringing back more recent extinctions, such as the Woolly Mammoth or the Tasmanian Tiger, both of which are theoretically possible.
In 2001 the first cat was cloned, a cat named CC, and the first pet cat clone was sold soon after for $50,000. Of course, this started a whole new avenue of discussion on the cloning of animals for commercial, rather than scientific, purposes.
Such discussions are not the point of this article however.
The point of this article is, in practical terms, what could you expect if you were to have your cat cloned?
Well, the first myth to be dispelled is that a clone is an exact reproduction, with the memories, personality and mannerisms of the original. This is simply not true. A clone is genetically identical, so any purely genetically controlled factors are likely to be the same; however, genes can be inconsistent in their effects so when environmental factors are added to the mix even genetically controlled factors may vary dramatically.
Skin or fur colour, eye colour, build and size would all have a tendency to be similar between an animal and its clone, but it's entirely feasible that they might not be.
The other big myth is that if you were to clone (for instance) a 10 year old cat, then you would soon end up with another 10 year old cat. The genetic information that makes cloning possible contains no information about the age of the genetic donor.
Each clone is born and grows within the same time scale as any non-cloned animal of the same species, so to get a 10 year old cat you would have to wait 10 years from its birth.
Cloning is not a method for extending the life of a loved one, or replacing them with an indistinguishable reproduction. Essentially what most people hope for with a cloned pet is a companion of similar temperament, and so a similar personality, to the original.
Enough time has passed that some of those wealthy enough to meet the price tag have now had their cats for some time and would be able to give us a real description of what it is like to have a cloned cat - unfortunately not many of them want to!
That said, I was pleased to find one such owner who is willing to spill the beans.
Musician, director, animator and all round talented chap Liam Lynch had his cat, Frankie Forcefield, cloned when Frankie was sadly run over in 1995.
Finnegan Forcefield has now been with Liam for nearly 2 years, and Liam has been very candid throughout that time, periodically sharing his views on the experience with subscribers to his excellent podcast.
In his latest podcast, Lynch was kind enough to answer a question on the subject from one of his fans.
"What do your cats think of Finnegan Forcefield? Do they realise he's Frank's clone or do they think he's an entirely different cat or what?"
Great question and exactly what I had been wondering myself!
Liam Responds, "I wouldn't say that they think he's Frank, they certainly know he is not Frank because when Frank died [he] was gone for ten months.
"That being said, Finnegan has Frank's scent because he's franks clone.
"Normally when you're bringing a new cat into a household, especially a multiple cat household, it takes a couple of weeks because a new cat coming in destroys the hierarchy of all the cats that already live there.
"When I first brought Finnegan into my home he was ten weeks old. I had him in a carrier so they could smell each other with the safety of the carrier being between them, to introduce them.
"Rock and Dog, my other two cats came in and they smelled him, and nobody hissed or anything, which really doesn't happen when you're introducing cats.
"I opened the cage and Rocky put his head in and started smelling Finnegan. Then he just started grooming him, and there was never any switch over time.
This is certainly a fascinating phenomenon and I'd be keen to ask other owners of cloned pets if they've had any similar experience. Lynch continues, with his usual candour.
"Finnegan, when he was a baby, and I don't know what this is from, but he would play with Frank's toys. I don't know if that was because Frank's scent was still on these toys, so when he went up to them and smelled them they smelled familiar, like they were already his, or if it's just that he has the same preferences that Frank has so whatever made Frank like a certain toy, or want to play with it, Finnegan would have those same choices.
"It's not like he is Frank, but he has the same toolset to deal with life, so [maybe] he ends up making the exact same type of decisions.
Either explanation makes sense to me, so it would be impossible to say without further study which one is true. I tend to think it's more likely to be scent related, but this is still a very new field of science and the exact effects of nature vs. nurture are still hotly contested by many experts.
I've not heard anyone predicting that this sort of thing might happen, in fact many experts suggest that this would not happen, but maybe in the face controversy they are overstating the point that a clone is an entirely new animal and is only genetically identical to the original.
In conclusion Lynch says,
"[Finnegan] has the same quirks, and now as he's getting older he really really looks like Frank.
"I don't see him as Frank, I see him as Frank's son, but he is closer than a twin to Frank, so it's a strange experience.
I'm sure to you, as a fellow cat obsessive, this is a wonderful insight into a whole new world, which raises as many questions as it answers. The implications stretch across and far beyond the subject of pet ownership and into the future of science and biology for all life.
I've written to Liam Lynch to ask if we could do an interview about his experience, delving further into the subject, if he agrees you can be sure the interview will be reproduced in a future edition of our Mewsletter.
BTW, Liam Lynch has two new excellent albums out, Get Up On The Raft and We're All Nighters (available via iTunes and other outlets). Those who have heard Liam's past work will know that, as with everything Liam does, these albums are brilliantly clever, experimental, often touching and above all, honest. I highly recommend them both.
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