For about the same cost as a 200-head herd of golden retrievers, dog lovers can clone their deceased (or not) canines. Sooam Biotech, the world’s first “cloning factory,” currently charges upward of $100,000 for genetically predictable puppies — and they do pretty good business. Cloning experts Charles Long and Mark Westhusin, cloning researchers at Texas A&M, say that the high price of animal cloning is as much a product of culture as it is a product of the complicated operation. That said, they say that cloning represents a niche growth field aimed squarely at the wealthy, not unlike the private aviation industry or the caviar industry — and that it is here to stay.
“How many people can buy a hundred-foot yacht?” Westhusin asked Inverse. “Well, they’re the same people that can clone their dog.”
The costs of building a lab, paying the personnel, and operating the facilities to house clones and surrogates are all probably included in Sooam’s bill, explains Long. It’s already expensive for research institutions to operate a cloning facility, he says, let alone a boutique lab specializing in a business as low-volume as pet cloning. After all, since Sooam’s inception 10 years ago, only 700 dogs have been cloned. It’s easy to disperse over multiple animals in large-scale procedures, like cloning cattle for agriculture, but pet cloning simply doesn’t hit those numbers.
Economies of scale simply don’t apply.
And because we love our beagles and burmeses more than we love our cattle, we feel obligated to provide them with humane — but costly — care. “The animal care and welfare required for cats and dogs is way more strict in terms of their care than is, say, having a cow out in the pasture,” says Westhusin, referring to the regulations set forth by the USCA. “It’s way, way more expensive. Just acquiring a surrogate cat is, like, $800.” These guidelines apply to both the cloned pets and their surrogate parent (or parents), which, Long points out, can’t be “used over and over” like cattle surrogates because the cloning procedure for cats and dogs — extracting eggs, implanting embryos — requires a lot more surgery than it does for livestock.
Cloning dogs is particularly time and labor intensive, says Westhusin, explaining that the animals are generally resistant to the artificial hormones normally injected into farm animals to speed up the preparation and impregnation process. “You can’t just go get a dog and give it a shot of estrogen or prostaglandin and get it to eat. Or you can’t go just give it FSH and get it to ovulate eggs,” he says. Scientists trying to impregnate a dog with a cloned embryo are, for the most part, bound to dogs’ natural ovulation cycles. “Dogs only cycle once every 6 months to a year,” he says. “That’s way more costly and expensive.”
In spite of their huge overhead costs, how does Sooam remain competitive? Westhusin speculates that cultural attitudes and animal welfare issues are different in the company’s native South Korea than they are in the U.S. “They eat dogs in Asia — it’s different than it is here,” he says. “I’ve never looked into the details, but I’m confident that their animal welfare care issues and labor costs are not quite as complicated as ours.”
At the end of the day, scientific costs far outweigh the cultural costs, a reality that, for better or worse, seems unlikely to change. And, because the target market for pet cloning is incredibly niche — and conveniently rich — it’s a boutique growth industry. “If you could figure out a magic trick where every embryo you cloned could be made a pup, you’d be great,” admits Westhusin. But Long isn’t so sure that would make much of a difference. “That would maybe drop the price down,” he says, “But you still gotta remember that these are commercial companies, and they’re doing this for a profit. If I can get $50,000 per animal, I’m gonna get it.”
There aren’t a lot of people out there who would even pay $1,000 for a regular pet, let alone drop a 100 grand on reviving a beloved dead animal. But, as Westhusin points out, the people who want to really want to. Sooam, together with American companies like Viagen that are getting into the business of pet cloning, may be run by scientists, but that’s not to say they’re not intensely financially savvy ones.
“These companies can charge pretty much whatever they want,” says Long.