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Pets, No Cemetery

In a world of cryofreezing and cloning, not all dogs get to go to heaven

Cam Floyd
Cam Floyd
Just this side of heaven is a place called Rainbow Bridge.
When an animal dies that has been especially close to someone here, that pet goes to Rainbow Bridge. There are meadows and hills for all of our special friends so they can run and play together. There is plenty of food, water and sunshine, and our friends are warm and comfortable …
They all run and play together, but the day comes when one suddenly stops and looks into the distance. His bright eyes are intent. His eager body quivers. Suddenly he begins to run from the group, flying over the green grass, his legs carrying him faster and faster.
You have been spotted, and when you and your special friend finally meet, you cling together in joyous reunion, never to be parted again. The happy kisses rain upon your face; your hands again caress the beloved head, and you look once more into the trusting eyes of your pet, so long gone from your life but never absent from your heart.
Then you cross Rainbow Bridge together …

One thing I know for sure about pet death etiquette is that people love to send each other “The Rainbow Bridge,” a remarkably awful prose poem that imagines a heaven-adjacent greeting lounge for dead pet owners and dead pets. The poem’s native format is the AOL-based email chain. Its font is Comic Sans. The treacle level is critical.

There aren’t established social rituals for mourning pets in the same way there are for humans. Pet owners look for socially acceptable outlets for their grief: a tattoo, a burial, taxidermy, rewatching Frankenweenie. (While Beauty and the Beast is a celebration of acute Stockholm syndrome, Disney’s most flagrantly grotesque movie is Frankenweenie because, well, the protagonist mutilates a dog corpse.) Even in Disney flicks, people don’t know how to behave when a beloved animal dies, and no deed is too dark if it can bring a pet back.

Coleen Ellis, a grief counselor who specializes in pet loss, said it’s common to fixate on bringing dead pets back. “Especially at the beginning of the grieving process, when the death has just happened, people say, ‘I’ll do whatever it takes. I’ll explore all the options. I’ll do anything to get them back,’” Ellis said. “But of course, after a few days and some follow-up and support, things get a little bit different.”

Some people don’t move past that raw, desperate bargaining stage of sadness so quickly, though. Instead, they search the scientific fringes for an artificial Rainbow Bridge.

Freezer Dreams

Using a scalpel, the vet cut into her neck to reveal her vessels. They were reluctant to enter through the chest as they didn’t have a rib splitter. The anterior jugular vein was about 5mm in width and it was dark purple. The carotid artery was much deeper, and was whiter in colour, and seemed a bit smaller. The vein was probably engorged due to static blood. The artery was held with a hemostat, and then a 20g IV catheter was inserted — one into the artery pointed toward the head and the other into the vein pointed to the heart. We had cut the top off a 500mL bag of IV fluid, emptied it and poured in the 10 percent glycerol. … After about 30 minutes, we noticed bloody fluid leaking from her nose and some edema to her face.

This is not a scene from an extremely graphic lost episode of ER. It’s a passage from the blog of Christine Gaspar, an Ontario, Canada–based nurse who cryonically preserved her pet cat, Marmalade, in 2013. This does not mean that Marmalade is alive, per se. She was euthanized and drained of blood. It does mean that Gaspar has hope that the procedure she used to preserve Marmalade’s body will make it possible to revive the cat.

It might be difficult to read Gaspar’s cat-freezing diary without gagging, but she’s happy with the results. “I’m of the opinion that something is better than nothing. Of course there are limits to that, but that’s the principle,” Gaspar said. She has another cat, which is 17 years old, and Gaspar plans to do the same with her.

Gaspar supports cryonics — a stab at immortality in which bodies are preserved in low temperatures, with the intention to revive them … whenever science catches up. In recent years, there’s been a decent amount of discussion about freezing humans for these reasons, but there’s also a movement to do the same for pets. These supporters preserve pets using the same methodology that’s used for humans. The methodology goes like this: You, or your pet, dies. As soon as you or the pet is dead, a team from a cryonics organization swaps your or its blood with a cryopreservative to prevent ice crystal formation in cells in a process called “perfusion.” The body is then moved to a storage vessel full of liquid nitrogen, known as a dewar or cryostat.

You can elect to have an entire body frozen, or you can choose to freeze only the brain. “Neuro” (brain only) is the cheaper option. Alcor Life Extension Foundation, an Arizona-based cryonics center, does only neuros for pets. That means their bodies are discarded in hopes that a new body will be procured before revival. When I asked what the plan was regarding the frozen pet brains’ new bodies, Alcor executive assistant Marji Klima told me that Alcor hypothesized that it will need to “create another body by some type of procedure that uses cellular information.” She did not get more specific.

Marmalade’s body is at the Cryonics Institute, in Clinton Township, Michigan. CI was founded by Robert Ettinger, the “father of cryonics,” who was, unfortunately, not a doctor or a biologist. The Cryonics Institute provided Gaspar with the glycerol used in Marmalade’s perfusion, and it houses 120 pets alongside its human bodies — unlike at Alcor, the pets can keep their bodies.

Suspended animation is a handy plot device (see: Vanilla Sky, Avatar, Sleeper, that one episode of Castle when a cryonics company steals the body that Castle is trying to investigate). But while it’s a popular sci-fi trope, cryonics is rare and expensive in the real world. Cryonics is regarded with suspicion and outright disdain from many scientists and doctors, with neuroscientists like Michael Hendricks dismissing it as an industry of charlatans profiting on offers of false hope.

Human perfusion procedures have often gone awry, and cryonics has a history pocked with gruesome mistakes. Bob Nelson, the first president of the Cryonics Society of California, was the first to preserve a man, in 1967. The man’s body was moved to Alcor. Nelson, a former TV repairman with no formal medical training, kept freezing people and appearing on television to promote the promise of cryonics, but was sued in the 1970s for improperly stuffing bodies in a single, leaky cryonics chamber, where they decomposed in a garage. (Errol Morris announced plans to direct a film based on Nelson’s story, starring Paul Rudd. The film, unfortunately, has not yet been made.)

Alcor’s scandals sound like they’re ripped from the pages of the National Enquirer. It houses the frozen head of baseball legend Ted Williams, and there was a coroner’s investigation into whether wealthy member Saul Kent’s mother was decapitated while she was alive. Kent was never charged with a crime.

Despite continued skepticism from within the scientific community, cryonics’ reputation has been buoyed in recent years by interest from high-profile techno-libertarians like Peter Thiel and glowing press from The New York Times. The Times ran a feature on a dying woman’s quest to preserve her brain in 2015. (The article did not note that the attempt was an admitted botch job, in which technicians mishandled her severed head.)

Cryonics supporters cite the animal world as evidence that nature is meant to freeze and unfreeze: Snakes once trapped in piles of snow wriggle in the melt. An early cryonics spokesperson cited Sea-Monkeys as proof that nature intends resurrections. Experiments on reanimating frozen animals have gone on for centuries; in 1766, a Scottish surgeon tried to revive frozen fish, and eventually extended his experiments to dormice, eels, toads, and vipers.

As it weathered human-based scandals, Alcor was conducting cryonics experiments on animals. Researchers worked on at least 15 dogs in the mid-1980s, lowering their body temperatures to just above freezing and then reviving them. Eleven dogs survived, but an Alcor research log from a 1984 body-cooling experiment on one of the animals shows the horrifying physical toll the experimentation took, with grand mal seizures and brain injury to the pup.

Alcor doesn’t want anyone to feel sad about weird animal torture anymore; Klima said it no longer experiments on animals. She counts 53 pets in the organization’s dewars — the oldest has been on Arizona ice since 1986. Cats and dogs, mostly. One lonely monkey. Most cryonics storage facilities, like Alcor, accept pets only if their owners also sign up for human cryopreservation. I asked Klima what would happen if the process for bringing animals back was established before figuring out how to safely revive humans.

“The owners would be regenerated first, and they would make the decision whether or not to regenerate their pets,” Klima said. “We’re not going to regenerate a bunch of pets and have them running around without their owners.”

Almost everything about cryonics is hitched to whopping what-ifs, and detractors say that the businesses that store and preserve bodies are flimflam artists preying on people who fear death. They’re selling a promise without a viable product. But at worst, that promise is a sort of psychic balm for people sad about their pets and worried about their own mortality. Clare Palmer, a bioethicist at Texas A&M, told me she would be concerned by cryonics organizations peddling false hope, but that the cryopreservation process itself wasn’t an issue. “I don’t think that there’s anything wrong [happening] to the animal,” she said.

The process of cryopreserving a pet is a waste of money, but it’s mostly harmless — snake oil can’t hurt the dead, and even adherents readily admit that their immortality project leans heavily on hope that future generations will make enormous scientific breakthroughs. Cryonics hurts only wallets, really. But there are practices to preserve pets that can do much more harm.

Clone Wars

Pet cryonics is a saintly industry compared to pet cloning. Of course, as far as pet-resurrection schemes go, cloning has a distinct advantage over cryonics — it produces a living animal. It’s popular enough to get its own TLC show, I Cloned My Pet.

The cloned animals don’t always look or act like their DNA parents, but they exist. While people trying to freeze their pets looked to animals that can survive being frozen, like certain species of frogs, for inspiration, those in the industry had another animal on their minds: one very famous sheep.

Dolly the Sheep became the first mammal cloned from an adult cell in 1996, and the success of that project jump-started a pet-cloning arms race. John Sperling, the billionaire mastermind behind the for-profit University of Phoenix, began his quest to clone his dog, Missy, the year after Dolly’s birth. Sperling backed a new cloning company, California-based Genetic Savings & Clone, for a project with researchers at Texas A&M called “Missyplicity.” The team had more success cloning cats than cloning dogs, partially because cat ovulation is easier to track. It first sold a cloned pet in 2004, to a Texas woman for $50,000. Missy stayed singular.

At the same time, scientists and businesspeople in South Korea were conducting parallel experiments. This group would later form the Sooam Biotech Research Foundation, a cloning center created by a fêted veterinarian named Hwang Woo-suk. Sooam is the world’s premier dog-cloning business — Genetics Saving & Clone closed in 2006, citing weak demand.

Hwang, in conjunction with Seoul National University, cloned the first dog, an Afghan hound named Snuppy, in 2005. Snuppy was Time’s “Invention of the Year.” And after Snuppy, a competing cloning agency called RNL Bio cloned five dogs named Booger to launch its commercial cloning business. (Weirdly enough, Booger’s owner has her own disturbing history — she was once wanted in England for kidnapping a young adult.) And now all you need is a spare $100,000 to buy a dog clone from the Seoul-based business. Sooam does not clone cats, due to low demand.

Hwang was later disgraced, discredited, and convicted in connection with a scandal about falsified claims on cloning human embryos. Despite his tattered reputation, Hwang was undeniably successful in pet cloning — and he has resumed his career as an animal-cloning expert. Sooam is partnering with a Chinese biotechnology company to create an enormous commercial animal-cloning facility on the Yellow Sea.

Cloned animals are made from the genetic materials of one parent, but they need other animals to provide a womb and eggs. These donor animals must undergo invasive procedures to make a clone. It’s not quite Never Let Me Go, but it’s bizarre that the creation of the most exclusive, expensive pet breed of all time — the clone — requires the people shelling out for it to condone using other animals as pure tools.

To create a clone, companies like Sooam need egg donors, which is a nice way of saying they need to use other animals for their spare body parts. Once they cut open these donor dogs, who are still alive, to retrieve their oocytes, they empty the eggs of genetic material, replacing the egg donor’s DNA with the genetic materials from a customer’s animal. This genetic material is jolted into newly formed cells using zaps of electricity. If this gene swap works, scientists will surgically place this precarious clone seed into a surrogate animal, which will carry it to term. This is asexual reproduction — there is no sperm involved, only the adult cells from the customer’s pet and the egg husk from a donor pet. To get the right genetic materials, a potential customer will need to either bring their living animal in for a biopsy and ship the cells off in preparation for the pet’s death — or they’ll need to immediately preserve the animal’s body right after it dies and get a veterinarian to take biopsies from the fresh corpse.

Cloning is plainly a scientific breakthrough, but the industry is fraught with ethical problems. John Woestendiek’s 2010 book Dog, Inc. takes a hard look at the cloning industry’s collateral damage. “It took 319 egg donors and 214 surrogate mothers to produce the first five cloned dogs and 11 cloned cats — 16 animals resulting from the creation and implantation of 3,656 embryos,” Woestendiek writes. Sooam researcher Jae Woong-wang told me via email that the company has cloned 790 dogs so far, which means that there are many dogs undergoing invasive physical procedures for every clone produced — and Sooam has been dealing with thousands of other donors and surrogates, though it won’t reveal how many. “The total number of donors/surrogates is a confidential trade secret,” Wang said.

“The surrogate mothers/egg donors are provided by an independent lab animal provider,” Wang said. “The surrogate mothers are often adopted with the cloned puppies by the clients. If not, we take care of them as their retirement.” While that’s a nice sentiment, there are no outside reviews of the business, so Sooam can make vague statements like “we take care of them” without revealing exactly what happens to these animals.

Clare Palmer, the Texas A&M bioethicist who spoke to me about cryonics, was far more disturbed by cloning. “It seems perverse,” Palmer said. “You’re causing suffering on an animal that doesn’t have a home.”

People who clone their pets pay an enormous sum to make a genetic reproduction that requires cutting open far more animals. They choose to use animal bodies as disposable tools. “Perverse” is one word for it.

The larger issue, of course, is that the purpose of all this makes very little sense: People think that a clone is the same animal as their pet. “People aren’t getting back what they’ve lost. I suspect people are kind of confused about what they’re getting,” Palmer said.

Woestendiek covered how this confusion between clone and second coming happened again and again with some clone owners, and how others turned away from their enormously expensive clones once they realized that creating a genetic duplicate was not the same as bringing a single animal back to life. This misunderstanding is stoked by the language that cloning companies use. On its website, Sooam explicitly sells cloning as a way to preserve memories of a beloved pet. “Sooam not only performs dog cloning research, but we also heal the broken hearts.”

Cloning and cryonics are two very different ways that grieving people attempt to mourn the death of their pet using science. One is little more than an eccentric embalming process. The other is a bona fide feat that creates a new life. Businesses peddling these services as solutions to death are lying — cryonics is far too scientifically flimsy to be considered anything other than a Hail Mary effort, and cloning does not re-create the same being.

TLC’s I Cloned My Pet, which aired in 2012, reveals how befuddled some dog-cloning customers are about their new pets. “Yes, it is the same dog,” Nina Otto, a woman who appeared on the series, says in one episode. “Yes, it is the same personality.” This conflation of genetic match and spiritual successor is echoed in other accounts of pet cloning.

“Maybe we’ve set ourselves up wanting it to be the same dog, and it probably is not the same dog,” Otto admits later in the episode. “Just leave us alone in our beliefs; we’ll be happier.”