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Cats have ten lives

And that is official - as of 2002 when the first cat was cloned. It was named CC (from Carbon copy - the same thing that happens when you clone an e-mail and zing it off to a dozen recipients - a pity in a way, as Copy Cat would have been an even neater name).

Everyone has heard of Dolly the Sheep, the world's first cloned mammal. What is not clear to many people is why a flood of other cloned animals have not followed in Dolly's hoofprints. The answer as the experts (always) say, is "it's not as simple as that". For a start, scientists can't clone animals - or at least not all of them. Every animal's genetic make-up is different, and so far scientists have successfully done sheep, goats, cattle - and cats. To give an idea how complex the business is, the world's most industrious cat cloners, a now defunct outfit called Genetic Savings and Clone (a pun on the generic name of many US banks) have managed to clone less than half a dozen cats. And their cat cloning was a by-product of an unsuccessful attempt to clone their millionaire backer's favourite hunting dog. Scientists have not managed to do dogs yet, though there is a general feeling that this will inevitably happen.

When Genetic Savings and Clone announced that it was prepared to clone household pets for profit, it was greeted with a storm of abuse. 'Frankenpets!' howled one California newspaper. 'Sacrilege' added religious conservatives. 'Inhumane' said the humane society. 'Elitist' added the political left, noting that cloned pets were being offered at $50,000 a copy. However, the general public, looking at CC and her mother?/sister?/twin? offered a more telling observation. 'Err ... they don't look the same'.

It transpired that scientists on the cloning project had managed simultaneously to pull off a scientific triumph and a public relations disaster. CC's mother/sister/whatever/, Rainbow, is a three-colour tortoiseshell, and CC isn't. Few listened when the scientists pointed out that the two animals are genetically identical. But during development of the kitten foetus, some genes that affect coat colour get switched on, or not switched on, at random, and CC's genes didn't. Even worse, since character is affected as much by environment as inheritance, it turns out that CC is slim, curious, and energetic, whilst Rainbow is chunkier and more reserved (having people in white coats doing very personal things to your reproductive organs can have that effect).

So, reasoned the public, you can put down $50,000 and get a cat that does not look or act like your old pet, (and which also has a 23% chance of developing some kind of genetic abnormality while young) or you can go down to the local pet pound, and for the cost of a car trip and the paperwork get a cat that also does not look or act like your old pet.

In vain the company announced that it had developed new techniques which improved the chances of clones resembling the cats they came from (though these techniques represent substantial scientific advances in their own right). The damage had been done. Little Nicky (Mk II) was sold to the grieving owner of Little Nicky (Mk I) in 2004, but it was evident that the demand just was not there. Savings and Clone has now closed its doors and is not accepting new custom.

So should cats be cloned? There are arguments against using the technique commercially as the science now stands. Eighty-seven foetuses died or were aborted in the course of successfully producing CC, and that casualty rate has not been significantly lowered since. Nor have the odds against genetic deformity decreased.

But what if cloning was easy, cheap, and involved neither pain for the participants or death for the foetuses? Animal rights activists argue that it would still be inhumane, in that it would deny a second chance of finding a home to the millions of pets in shelters; too many of which have to be euthanized already. And given that it won't be the same cat anyway, why not use the old-fashioned technique of reproducing cats, involving tomcats, queens, and midnight romance? Nevertheless, you can bet that once the science has improved, and the costs come down (and they will) many pet owners will jump at the chance to clone their beloved pet.

Here, Kitty, Kitty, Kitty, Kitty, Kitty, Kitty, Kitty, Kitty, Kitty, Kitty, ...

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