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Remembering a writer and the bonds we forever share with our pets | READER COMMENTARY

Former Baltimore Sun reporter John Woestendiek Jr. who died last month at the age of 66.
Former Baltimore Sun reporter John Woestendiek Jr. who died last month at the age of 66. (Sun photo by Elizabeth Malby)

“Just a dog? Hardly. ‘Just a dog’ is something the dog-less say, like, ‘You can always get another one.‘”

— John Woestendiek (2010)

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Your aging dog is sick again. The vet’s prognosis is dim. You cannot imagine life without this life-long canine companion. Then someone informs you of an outfit that can clone your dog. For $30,000 or so, it promises to replace your temporary loss with a duplicate. Do you, or should you, take the chance?

This question inspired a book written by former Baltimore Sun reporter John Woestendiek. He just passed away in North Carolina. The obituary that was published in The Sun highlighted his career as an award-winning journalist who wrote for several big-city newspapers (”John Woestendiek Jr., former Baltimore Sun features reporter, dies,” July 6). I did not recognize his name until the obit mentioned that he published a book, “Dog, Inc.: The Uncanny Inside Story of Cloning Man’s Best Friend.” That struck a chord. Years ago I read this book and incorporated the insights into a more academic venue. Rereading it again after seeing the obit, Mr. Woestendiek’s insights about the significance of dogs in human life and the dubious business tactics of exploiting our affection for pets remain quite pertinent.

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Using his skills as a reporter and interviewer, John Woestendiek studied the medical research and promotional tactics of companies that offered cloning services. They could find and pull at every emotional heart string that connected people to their mutts and pooches. Mr. Woestendiek claims that the death of a pet dog (in his youth, Tippy) is often our first encounter with mortality. It is also our first confrontation with true loss. That is, someone we loved is gone, forever.

With wit and insight, he explored several options pursued by dog owners to conceal or diminish this loss. Some partake in elaborate funerals for the departed pet including elaborate religious services and gold plated coffins. Others will pay a company like Perpetual Pet to have their mutts freeze-dried or stuffed, so that the corpse can be placed in a window sill as if still surveying the front yard. One promo boasts, “We are thrilled that we can help … giving them the opportunity to see and touch their pets again.”

What most companies conceal is the enormous amount of suffering inflicted onto dogs that do not resemble the original. Those losers are sent to shelters, rescue centers or to restaurants in countries where dog meat is part of the menu. Nor do they clarify to customers how slim are the odds of the clone being just like the dying dog.

Here Mr. Woestendiek’s lessons are fundamental. When you love someone — a friend, spouse, sibling, paramour — you assume the individual is distinct, unique, singular. No one is quite like this person. So too with a pet dog. Whether you call the mutt Sparky, Reese, Prudence or Bogart, there is no other dog quite like this one. A clone is an illusion, albeit an expensive one.

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Underlying the author’s cynical accounts of the pet business is a celebration of dogs as companions and contributors to human well-being. Perhaps we can give John Woestendiek the last word, perhaps his epitaph: “Dogs tap into what’s still pure and joyful and innocent inside us…they keep the child in us alive.”

Alexander E. Hooke, Owings Mills

The writer is a professor philosophy at Stevenson University.

Add your voice: Respond to this piece or other Sun content by submitting your own letter.

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