It's a typical morning at the Dupont Veterinary Clinic in Lafayette, La. Dr. Phillip Dupont is caring for cats and dogs in the examining room while his wife, Paula, answers the phone and pet owners' questions. Their two dogs are sleeping on the floor behind her desk.
"That's Ken and Henry," Paula says, pointing to the slim, midsize dogs with floppy ears and long snouts. Both dogs are tan, gray and white, with similar markings. "I put a red collar on Ken and a black collar on Henry so I can tell who's who."
Ken and Henry are genetically identical, though not exact replicas. They're clones of the Duponts' last dog, Melvin — created when scientists injected one of Melvin's skin cells, which contained all of his DNA, into a donor egg that had been emptied of its original DNA.
Ken and Henry are two of only about 600 dogs that have been cloned since scientists at Sooam Biotech, a suburban company near Seoul, South Korea, developed the technology to create cloned canines.
The Duponts sat down with Shots to explain why they decided to clone Melvin.
"He was different," says Phillip Dupont. "Of all the dogs I had, he was completely different."
Melvin was supposed to be a Catahoula leopard dog, Louisiana's state dog (sometimes called a Catahoula hound). Turned out, Melvin was a mutt, probably part Catahoula and part Doberman.
"I paid $50 for him," says Phillip. "But I wasn't going to return it. I thought for a while I was going to put him to sleep." Then he changed his mind. "Turned out to be the best dog I ever owned."
The Duponts have lots of stories about what made Melvin the best dog they ever owned, including the time Melvin found car keys Phillip had lost in the tall grass. The couple trusted the dog so much they let him babysit their grandson in the backyard all by himself.
"He listened," says Phillip. "You could talk to him and you swore he understood what you were talking about. It was weird."
So a couple of years ago, when Melvin was about 9 and starting to show his age, the Duponts turned to a lab in South Korea. Even though the process would cost them $100,000, the couple decided to do it. They'd already spent that much on a Humvee, Phillip notes. "So, what the heck?"
He sent some of Melvin's skin cells off to the lab — the only place in the world that is cloning dogs for pet owners. The first cloned puppy soon died from distemper. The lab tried again, this time producing two healthy clones.
For a while it was like having three Melvins. The personalities of the dogs, the Duponts say, are very similar. But less than two years later, Melvin's time came.
"It was hard," says Phillip, choking back tears.
Having the clones — Ken and Henry — helped the couple cope with the loss.
"They come running through the house and jump in your lap — a 75-pound dog sitting in your lap, watching TV." They still miss Melvin, they say, but having two more dogs so similar to him has helped "quite a bit."
Most of the dogs cloned so far have been for grieving pet owners. Some have been for police agencies looking for special skills — bomb-sniffing, for example.
But not everyone thinks this idea is so great.
"If you love dogs and you really want to have your companion animal cloned, you really do need to take very seriously the health and well-being of all the dogs that would be involved in this process," says Insoo Hyun, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University.
To clone a dog you need to use a lot of other dogs to serve as egg donors and surrogates, Hyun explains, and that means many dogs are undergoing surgical procedures. Most of the time the process doesn't work; many attempts are required to produce a single clone.
"I think there are probably better ways to spend $100,000 if you really care about animals," Hyun says.
He also wonders about the health of Sooam's cloned puppies. Most cloned animals end up pretty sickly — all that for a dog that isn't even an exact replica of the original.
"All cloning does is reproduce the genome of your original pet," Hyun explains.
"But maybe the way your dog interacted with you — and even the way it looks — was also strongly environmentally influenced." You can never duplicate that kind of influence, Hyun says.
When pressed about how much the clones are really alike, the Duponts admit there are little differences, much as differences show up among identical twins. The white stripe on Henry's nose is a lot wider than Ken's, and Henry weighs a bit less. Ken is more of a loner. But that's about it for differences, the couple insists.
"They're so much like Melvin it's unreal," Phillip Dupont says. So far, he adds, both clones seem perfectly healthy.
As far as whether other dogs suffered in creating theirs — the Duponts dismiss that notion, based on what they saw at the lab when they visited twice to pick up their clones.
"Even though South Koreans eat dogs, they love their pets," Phillip says. "They've got rooms for these dogs to sleep in, with beds. They've got technicians who sleep with the dogs. And [the dogs] are all well cared for."
He says the lab staff told him that after dogs have served as donors or surrogates, "they're fixed up and go to new homes." (Sooam Biotech did not confirm or deny that assertion when NPR asked what happens to the dogs the company uses as donors and surrogates).
The Duponts also say they don't feel bad about spending so much money to create cloned dogs, when so many other dogs need homes.
There will always be strays on the road and too many dogs at the animal shelter, because irresponsible owners don't spay or neuter their pets, Paula says. In contrast, she says, families that clone their pets don't do it "with the idea of producing 10 more. We're looking at having the one special dog again."
Or, in their case, two special dogs again, and maybe one more. The Duponts are already talking about cloning Melvin again — for their grandson.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
If you really, really love your dog, you can have twice the love. You can have your dog cloned if you're willing to spend $100,000 to do it. NPR's Rob Stein has been asking how people decide to clone their dogs and what the experience is like. So he went to visit a couple who did this and also visited their dog - or rather, dogs.
ROB STEIN, BYLINE: So to meet these canine clones and their owners, I traveled to Lafayette, La. and headed to the Dupont Veterinary Clinic...
PAULA DUPONT: (Answering telephone) Dupont Veterinary Clinic...
STEIN: To find Dr. Phillip Dupont and his wife, Paula.
PAULA DUPONT: Good morning, nice to meet you. Paula Dupont.
STEIN: OK, great, nice to meet you too.
As I walk in, I see there's nothing fancy about the clinic, and the Duponts seem like just regular folks. But they're pretty well known around town - not only because they take care of lots of people's pets, also because of their dogs. I spot them right away, sacked out on the floor behind the front desk.
Wait, hold on. Are those - are those the guys?
PAULA DUPONT: Those are the guys. That's Ken and Henry.
STEIN: Ken and Henry pop up their heads, scramble onto their long legs and start checking me out.
PAULA DUPONT: Oh yeah, sniff and snort. Come here, Henry.
STEIN: They're so cute.
At first glance, Ken and Henry look identical.
I'm sorry, so this is Ken?
They have the same long, slim bodies, really pretty coats, tan, gray and white markings, floppy ears, long snouts.
PAULA DUPONT: I put a red collar on Ken and a black collar on Henry so I can tell who's who.
STEIN: Ken and Henry are genetic duplicates of the Duponts' last dog. His name was Melvin.
PHILLIP DUPONT: That's Melvin on the coffee cup.
STEIN: I turn around. It's Dr. Dupont. He's holding up a coffee mug for me to see. It's covered with identical pictures of a dog that looks just like Ken and Henry.
Wow, that's great. How old's Melvin in that picture?
PHILLIP DUPONT: He was about 8 years old.
STEIN: Dr. Dupont takes me outside to tell me more about Melvin and give Ken and Henry a chance to play.
PHILLIP DUPONT: Come on, boys, out this way.
STEIN: We head to a big open field.
PHILLIP DUPONT: You can go on, clowns. Henry, get yourself over here.
PHILLIP DUPONT: Henry (whistling), come over this way.
STEIN: As Ken and Henry start wrestling in the grass, Dupont tells me all about Melvin.
PHILLIP DUPONT: Well, he was different. He was - of all the dogs I had, he was completely different.
STEIN: Melvin was supposed to be a purebred Catahoula hound, Louisiana's state dog. Turned out, Melvin was a mutt, probably part Catahoula, part Doberman.
PHILLIP DUPONT: I paid $50 for it. But I wasn't going to return it. And I thought a while, I'm going to put him to sleep. Turned out to be the best dog I ever owned.
STEIN: Dupont has lots of stories about what made Melvin the best, how Melvin once found his car keys in the tall grass, how they trusted Melvin so much they let him babysit their grandson all by himself in the backyard, how folks would come by just to visit with Melvin.
PHILLIP DUPONT: He'd listen. You could talk to him, and he - sure, he understood what you were talking about. I mean, you'd tell him anything; he'd go do it. Most of the time, he knew what you were talking about. He'd come sit with you. It was weird.
STEIN: So a couple of years ago, when Melvin was starting to show his age, the Duponts heard about a place that was cloning dogs, a lab in South Korea. Even though it cost $100,000, the Duponts decided to do it. So Dupont sent some of Melvin's skin cells off to the lab in South Korea. They couldn't wait. But the first cloned puppy they got back ended up dying right away from distemper. So the lab tried again. This time, they got two healthy clones.
So are they exactly alike?
PHILLIP DUPONT: Yeah.
STEIN: Exactly alike.
PHILLIP DUPONT: They're the same DNA and everything. And their personalities are the same, too.
STEIN: For a while, it was like having three Melvins. But less than two years later, Melvin's time came.
PHILLIP DUPONT: I put him down.
STEIN: Was that hard for you?
PHILLIP DUPONT: Yeah, it was hard.
STEIN: Do you still miss Melvin?
PHILLIP DUPONT: Quite a bit.
STEIN: Does it help having these two guys here?
PHILLIP DUPONT: Oh, yeah. You forget it real quick - real quickly. They come running through the house and jump in your lap - 75 pound dog sitting in your lap, watching TV. So you're back to where you're at.
STEIN: There aren't a lot of cloned dogs in the world. But the lab in South Korea that cloned Ken and Henry say they've created about 600 cloned dogs, mostly for grieving pet owners. But not everyone thinks this is so great. Before I went to see the Duponts, I talked with Insoo Hyun, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, to find out why.
INSOO HYUN: If you love dogs and you really want to have your companion animal cloned, you really do need to take very seriously the health and well-being of all the dogs that would be involved in this process.
STEIN: You see, to clone a dog, you need to use a lot of other dogs, female dogs, to get eggs to make cloned dog embryos and be surrogate mother dogs. So lots of dogs go through operations to get the eggs and impregnate the surrogate. And most of the time, it doesn't work. So you have to try over and over again to get each clone.
HYUN: I think there are probably better ways to spend $100,000 if you really care about animals.
STEIN: Hyun also wonders about the health of the cloned puppies. Most cloned animals end up pretty sickly. And just because the clones have the same genes as the original dogs, Hyun says that doesn't necessarily mean they're really carbon copies.
HYUN: All cloning does is reproduce the genome of your original pet. But maybe the way that your dog interacted with you and the way it looked was also strongly environmentally influenced. And you can never obviously duplicate that kind of influence.
PHILLIP DUPONT: They want to see my squirrel trap up there (laughter). Come on, boys.
STEIN: I wonder what the Duponts think about all this.
PHILLIP DUPONT: (Whistling) Let's go.
STEIN: So we head back inside.
PHILLIP DUPONT: Come on in.
STEIN: So we can all sit down and talk about it. We walk through Dr. Dupont's examining room. He stops to point out the hunting trophies lining the walls, heads of warthogs and other critters.
PAULA DUPONT: Yeah, you're thirsty.
STEIN: Paula fills a big bowl for the dogs. When I press them about whether the clones are really exact duplicates, they admit there are little differences. The white stripe on Henry's nose is a lot wider than Ken's, and he weighs a bit less. Ken's more of a loner. But that's about it.
PHILLIP DUPONT: They're so much like Melvin, and it's unreal. You see Melvin every day in them.
STEIN: And so far, they seem perfectly healthy. As far as other dogs suffering, they dismiss all that. They say they got a good look at the lab both times when they visited to pick up their clothes.
PHILLIP DUPONT: Even though South Koreans eat dogs, they love their pets. And they got rooms for these dogs sleeping, with beds. They've got - technicians sleep with these dogs. And they're well cared for. And then when they get through, they're fixed up. And they go to new homes. At the end, it's a win thing for the bitch. Nobody goes and gets killed. She's going to be well cared for.
STEIN: I ask them if they feel bad at all about spending so much money to create clones when so many regular dogs need homes.
PAULA DUPONT: There will always be stray dogs on the road and too many dogs at the animal shelter because the original owner of the dog that got pregnant and produced the puppies, that was the irresponsible owner. Everyone that's cloned a dog, we're not cloning our dogs on the idea of producing 10 more. We're looking at having the one special dog again.
STEIN: In their case, two special dogs again.
PAULA DUPONT: Good dog. Henry, up.
STEIN: And the Duponts are talking about cloning Melvin one more time, this time for their grandson.
PAULA DUPONT: Sit. Say ah.
STEIN: Rob Stein, NPR News.
PAULA DUPONT: There - good dogs, yeah. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.