Ira Levin imagined it in 1976. The novelist wrote “The Boys from Brazil,” fictionalizing the story of Nazi war criminal Dr. Josef Mengele.
In Levin’s book, which became a blockbuster movie starring Gregory Peck, Dr. Mengele, who (also in real life) escaped from the ashes of the Third Reich to South America, continued his horrific medical experiments by implanting zygotes with Hitler’s DNA into dozens of unknowing Brazilian women.
Nine months later, 94 little black-haired, blue-eyed Hitlers were let loose on the world via international adoption. It was fiction, of course, but it borrowed from the emerging science of human cloning.
Since then, cloning has moved into mainstream research. The possibility of cloning organs for implantation, cloning endangered species or even cloning extinct species (see “Jurassic Park”) is actively pursued in laboratories around the world.
Scientists have successfully cloned entire animals, like Dolly the sheep, who was genetically identical to her mother. She was reproduced at the Roslin Institute in Scotland from cells taken from her mother’s mammary gland. She lived a normal although abbreviated life, and today enjoys an afterlife, stuffed and on display in the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh.
I suppose it isn’t surprising that use will lead, eventually, to abuse. We learned recently that Barbra Streisand had her beloved Coton de Tulear dog, Samantha, cloned at a reported cost of $50,000. The cloning produced two puppies, genetically identical to Samantha: Miss Scarlett and Miss Violet.
Perhaps “abuse” is too strong a word for Streisand’s self-indulgence. Egregious abuse, so far as we know, has been evidenced only in the world of science fiction, where novelists have written about entire populations of humans cloned to work as slaves, or reproduced to provide needed organs for transplantation. To date, for more benign reasons, scientists have successfully cloned monkeys, cows, sheep, horses, mules, goats, rats and carp, among other species.
We know, however, that in our culture, when we learn how to do something, we tend to do it. And overdo it. What needs to be asked is, “Should we do it?” Scientists are actively debating the bioethical issues surrounding animal cloning. How many cloning experiments lead to malformed offspring? Does the cloned animal enjoy a full and normal existence? Are diseases passed on? One scientist suggested that Dolly the sheep lived only to age 6 because the donor mother was fully mature, and Dolly was “born” at an already advanced age, at the cellular level.
The positive possibilities of cloning could lead to medical advances, but with cloning, we mortals are wading into philosophical and ethical quicksand (see “Frankenstein”).
As for Streisand cloning her dog, it was wrong-minded, I think. In August 2016 our sweetie, Zoe, also a Coton de Tulear, died at age 16. She was our adored pet, our playmate and soul mate, bright and beautiful. But even if I had the $50,000 to spend, I would never consider cloning her. She was unique, her own self, and as much a product of her life with us as her own DNA.
The grief over our lost loves runs deep. We loved Zoe and we always will, but it feels foolish and perhaps transgressive to think that we could somehow recreate her. Or that we have the right to. In truth, we cannot mitigate grief.
John Woestendiek, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter and the author of the book “Dog, Inc.: The Uncanny Inside Story of Cloning Man’s Best Friend,” said in an interview that cloning dogs is a very bad idea. He said that Streisand did it because she could and because she is accustomed to getting what she wants. He said that if she had asked his advice, he would have said no. Among his reasons is the fact that so many existing dogs desperately need homes.
For us, the way forward after Zoe was to adopt another Coton de Tulear, a super hypoallergenic breed that doesn’t shed or produce dander. She is Lilly Bee, and she is our companion, resident clown and adored pet. She could not be more different from Zoe, although they look identical. Different breeder, different personality, different abilities, and that’s just the way we want it to be.
Zoe rests in peace. There’s no pseudo-Zoe running around with our expectation that she could replace the original.
While no great harm was done, what the Streisand dog-cloning story does for the world is remind us to be vigilant and alert to the frightening possibilities of evil-doers messing with Mother Nature.
Copyright 2018 Randi Kreiss. Randi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.