A Bel Air woman loves her long-haired chihuahua so much that she paid a Texas animal cloning company $50,000 so that her dog — or a version of him — will be at her side forever.
Five puppies who are genetically identical to the dog, named Bruce Wayne, were born in October and thrived. Four went to live with Bruce and his owner, Meesha Kauffman, while the fifth has a home now with a friend of Kauffman's in Baltimore.
"I was expecting one puppy or maybe two," Kauffman said. "When I heard that five puppies were born, I thought, 'Wow, I hit the jackpot.' Having five dogs has definitely been a lifestyle change. But goodness, they bring me so much joy I can't imagine parting with any of them now."
ViaGen is the only company in the U.S. to clone pets in addition to livestock, according to Melain Rodriguez, the company's client service manager.
Since expanding from livestock into pet cloning more than two years ago, ViaGen, a subsidiary of the Gaithersburg biotechnology firm Intrexon, has cloned more than 100 pets, Rodriguez said, and more than half are dogs. Though the chihuahua pups aren't the first cloned pets to live in Maryland — Rodriguez said the company has previously cloned cats for Free State residents — they are the company's first cloned canines in the state.
Despite the expense — $50,000 for a dog and $25,000 for a cat — Rodriguez said the practice has become increasingly popular since singer Barbra Streisand revealed in February that she'd had her recently deceased dog, a Coton du Tulear named Samantha, cloned.
Currently, Rodriguez said, there's a lengthy waiting list to genetically replicate Fido or Fluffy.
"The demand is very high," she said, "and it's growing."
Cloning has slowly become more acceptable since Scottish scientists created a lamb named Dolly in 1997, the first cloning of a mammal, though it's still far from mainstream.
The procedure remains controversial, raising ethical issues about animal rights and questions about whether we're approaching making it acceptable to produce carbon copies of humans.
"There's nothing closer to humans than dogs and if we find it acceptable to clone dogs maybe the next logical step is humans," said John Woestendiek, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and author of "Dog, Inc.: The Uncanny Inside Story of Cloning Man's Best Friend."
Woestendiek, who once worked for The Baltimore Sun, opposes animal cloning. He pointed out that there are plenty of dogs that need adoption and that a cloned animal just isn't an exact replica.
The cloned animals look alike, but have distinct personalities and demeanors and cloning companies should be upfront about that, ethicists say.
"What often is driving the transaction, I think, is that people want it to be a rebirth of their pet," said Alan C. Regenberg, director of outreach and research support at the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics. "These cloned dogs are as similar to each other as identical twins, who are more similar to each other then people who aren't identical twins, but they are also very unique."
Rodriguez said ViaGen cautions prospective clients that while the company can guarantee a clone that's genetically identical to the parent, personalities are a complicated mix of nature and nurture. But usually, she said, any differences in animal character traits are subtle.
"Breeders have known for a long time that temperament is a heritable trait," she said. "Environmental factors do play a role. But while we really don't know how much of our personality is determined by our genetics, there's probably a bigger correlation than we once thought."
Cloning involves a process called nuclear transfer, which Rodriguez explained as follows:
A veterinarian removed a 4-millimeter piece of Bruce Wayne's skin, and it was shipped to Texas. Scientists at ViaGen took the sample, performed a culturing procedure and grew millions of live cells. An egg was then withdrawn from the surrogate "mother" — in this case a beagle — and the nucleus was removed. The remainder of the beagle's egg was fused with the cultured cells, embryos started to grow and they were implanted into the beagle. After a normal gestation period, the beagle gave birth Oct. 26 to the litter of five puppies.
Animal welfare activists said putting animals through unnecessary medical procedures is inhumane.
"It is not like there was a beautiful natural process and out comes a live animal," said Kathleen Conlee, vice president of animal research issues at The Humane Society of the United States. "There are many steps along the way that involve animals. I think these companies mislead people about what animals go through and if people knew they would have second thoughts."
Rodriguez said ViaGen's trained specialists make sure the surrogate animals "are cared for at the highest level."
Conlee and other animal activists questioned the need for cloning and its cost, considering how many animals are available for adoption.
"Each animal sort of deserves its own life and its own natural life and somehow by cloning the animal it is something that would not be part of the natural cycle of life," said Lisa G. Radov, president and chairman of Maryland Votes for Animals Inc., which promotes legislation to improve the lives of animals.
Kauffman, 35, said she's been an avid supporter of animal rescues. Three of her four cats and all of her pets leading up to Bruce came from local shelters and rescues.
"My decision to clone Bruce Wayne was that I wanted to have another version of him by my side," she said in an email.
Kauffman started thinking about having the procedure done shortly after adopting Bruce, now 4 years old, as a five-month-old puppy. She features the dog — and now his clones — in the Instagram account, ipartywithbrucewayne, which now has 60,400 followers.
"I have a connection with Bruce Wayne that goes deeper than with any pet I've ever had," she said. "He's very calming. He's my best friend, and he travels everywhere with me."
But at the time, the only pet cloning that Kauffman could find was being done in South Korea. In addition to the expense, she was dissuaded by other practical considerations, including the lengthy quarantine time required to bring animals into the U.S. So when she heard that ViaGen had started cloning animals in the U.S., she jumped at the chance.
Just as the parent dog, Bruce Wayne, is named after Batman, Kauffman has given her pups superhero names: Clark Kent (Superman), Peter Parker (Spiderman), Wade Wilson (Deadpool) and Tony Stark (Iron Man).
Kauffman said that her puppies express individual traits — Wade Wilson is their angry puppy, while jealous Clark Kent always wants whichever toy his litter mates are playing with. Peter Parker is sweet, while Tony Stark is calm and laid-back.
"They're not robotic copies of Bruce Wayne, but they're more like him than they're different," Kauffman said. "They're always doing something that makes me stop and say: 'Oh my God, that's exactly what Bruce would have done.' "