This is the kind of book I usually like very much–topical science written for the layperson. It starts out good; the subject is narrow enough to really delve into it, and Woestendiek knows to use biographical information to create a narrative to draw the reader along. Alas, for various reasons, this book will not make my top ten of 2011.
The main characters Woestendiek chooses to focus on are a millionaire who founded the first American cloning-for-profit organization, the Korean scientists who actually succeed in cloning a dog, the police dog Trakr and his handler, and Bertrann McKinney who goes to the ends of the earth to clone her beloved service dog Booger.
The millionaire first decides to start the company to clone his mother’s dog, Missy. Woestendiek spends a chapter or two giving biographical data about this guy and his mom, but I kept losing track of who was who and why they were relevant to the story. Like many millionaires, they aren’t as interesting as they think they are. Once we’re past the biography, Woestendiek talks about how they found the Missiplicity project, and get Texas A&M researchers to create the technology.
The researchers at A&M aren’t successful at first. Difficulties arise because for one, dog eggs are apparently opaque, and secondly, Americans are in general batshit crazy when it comes to dogs, which meant they had severe limits on how they could treat the dogs they experimented on. With the restrictions from nature and from animal right’s groups, they aren’t able to clone a dog, but they do clone other animals.
Woestendiek talks about the cloning of cats, and about the various successes and setbacks thereof. He also talks quite a bit about a remarkably tame bull named Chance, who got cloned by the Texas A&M researchers. The first bull was so tame that toddlers could ride his back. The clone, uncreatively named “Second Chance” gored his owner, who nonetheless refused to believe the bull was any bit different from the first one.
And that’s the real philosophical issue raised by cloning in general and explored by this book. Clones are not the same as their parents. Calico cats clones don’t have the same markings, cloned bulls don’t have the same temprament, and cloned dogs sometimes don’t even look like their parent. They are not the same animal, yet grief-stricken pet owners refuse to believe that the clone is anything other than a reincarnation of the Spot or Fido they lost.
The Korean scientists manage to clone dogs, with the aid of a ready supply of egg donor bitches, an incredibly intense work ethic, and the resounding support of the South Korean government. The author implies that successful dog cloning was also made much easier by the Korean’s attitude towards dogs, an attitude that many Americans disagree with. (If you put a chicken in a cage for its whole life, then kill it and eat it, that’s business as usual. If you do the same to a dog, somehow that’s a heinous crime against nature.) When the scientists in Korea are successful, they are hailed as heroes, lauded and practically worshipped, even after allegations of fraud and embezzling surface.
However, the most compelling story in this book is the one of Bertrann McKinney. Despite living on $500 a month disability check, she managed to get the Korean firm to discount $100,000 off the bill, and scrape up the $50,000 plus expenses to fly to Korea and have her beloved dog Booger cloned. Bertrann’s love for her dog is unusual in its depth, and I would admire it if I could sympathize with it. I’m not a dog person. Like chickens, dogs are filthy, stupid, noisy and destructive, but chickens are tasty and even if they attack, they don’t maim you so badly that you need a service animal just to put your socks on*, as Bertrann did after her father’s dog attacked her.
Bertrann reacts to the death of her dog Booger in the same way that Bella Swan reacts when Edward Cullen leaves her. This behavior, in a lovesick teen pining for her boyfriend, is cute and sad. In a middle-aged woman pining for a mutt named after something you blow out of your nose, it’s perverse and bizarre. I’ve been sad when my pets die, but this level of attachment just struck me as wrong. It was like reading about a woman who is trying to legally marry a dolphin. It’s a nearly impossible quest undertaken for love, but it’s so unnatural that it just seems mentally ill. The best outcome in Bertrann’s case would not be that she get to clone her dog, but that she get some psychological help so she could put things into perspective. I wanted to tell her, “It’s just a dog, there are a gazillion more out there dying every day. Go adopt one and get over it.”
Woestendiek talks about the legal battles between the various organizations, but this interested me not at all. I liked reading about the science involved, but I wished there had been more of it. The main reason I didn’t like this book is that I wished there had been more about the science, especially detailed explanations of biology, and less biography of unlikeable and unsympathetic people.
This book made me uncomfortable. Not because I’m terrified of new technology (though I think cloning a person would be a horrible idea, because none of the clones in the book are anywhere near healthy) but because it makes me uncomfortable when the uncanny pseudo-human role that dogs play in our society is presented as normal and healthy. Bertrann and some of the other dog-owners who went to great lengths to recreate their beloved pets treat their dogs like members of the family, child substitutes whom they love with a depth that rivals any human-human bond. I know I’m in the minority when I say this, but dogs are animals, equal to and (in my opinion) no greater than chickens, cats, pigs, horses, sheep and rats. They will never be people, and treating dogs like people–though millions of my countrymen do it–feels as perverse as wanting to marry a dolphin.
If there had been more science and less law, and if the people that Woesteniek followed had passions I could identify with, I think I would have liked this much more. I recommend this for people who love dogs, and those who like to read about asshole millionaire mavericks and pathetically psychotic women, and for people who want to know about the cloning technology without being burdened with the science of it.
*Yes, I understand that there was that story about the fighting cock who killed its owner. That rooster had a sharp blade attached to his ankle. If you strap laser beams on the heads of guinea pigs, the guinea pigs might get in a lucky kill too. Doesn’t make guinea pigs as dangerous as dogs.