Nancyeclark's Blog

They clone horses don’t they?

“If scientific discovery has not been an unalloyed blessing, if it has conferred on mankind the power not only to create but also to annihilate, it has at the same time provided humanity with a supreme challenge and a supreme testing”  John Fitzgerald Kennedy

“Science by itself has no moral dimension. But it does seek to establish truth. And upon this truth morality can be built”  Dr. William H. Masters

“Scientific progress makes moral progress a necessity; for if man’s power is increased, the checks that restrain him from abusing it must be strengthened.”  Madame de Stael

I would like to begin this page by saying I am not a scientist in any way shape or form and if I get my facts wrong, am totally open to correction.

I just read a disturbing report about Sue Wallis, an American politician from Wyoming who is trying to set up a slaughterhouse for horses in her state, and an organization called the UOH, of which she is Executive Director. UOH, The United Organization of the Horse. Please do not be fooled by the rather innocuous, seemingly pro-horse title of this organization. It sounds like a group working for the good of horses…but what it actually is, is a  trade/lobbying group who takes contributions from horse slaughter interests, from the U.S Export Meat Federation, livestock and cattlemen organizations and from the Biotechnology Industry Organization, which is the lobbying arm of cloning and genetic engineering companies like Monsanto and ViaGen (who are actively cloning horses). They say they are concerned about the large numbers of ‘unwanted horses’ in the U.S….if so why would they be talking about cloning horses for slaughter, while killing off the natural ones? Real or cloned, slaughtering horses for food is a moral and ethical issue that has not got the support of the majority of North Americans. And cloning is another issue that raises its own moral and ethical questions.

Cloning occurs naturally in plants and some insects and has been used in horticulture for centuries. But I have found myself wanting to learn more about cloning, the kind of cloning that raises those moral and ethical questions for a lot of people, something that was in the news a lot, but has not been covered too much lately. As I understand it, cloning is a word that encompasses several different processes for “duplicating biological material” . There are  apparently three main types;  recombinant DNA cloning, therapeutic cloning and reproductive cloning. When I read about cloning, when there is talk about cloning horses for slaughter, or for breeding, they are usually talking about reproductive cloning.

As I understand it, recombinant DNA cloning has been around for years and is often used to  make multiple copies of the same gene for scientists to study and use in gene therapy, genetic engineering, and sequencing genomes.    

Therapeutic cloning is when they grow human embryos for use in research and to harvest stem cells. They are not creating cloned human beings, but remove the stem cells from the embryos to study and to use in treating diseases like cancer. Stem cells are removed from the egg after it has divided for 5 days…killing the embryo, which raises ethical and moral concerns for many people and has a lot of opposition.  

Reproductive cloning is the one I am really interested in. It is the type of cloning which first gave us a cloned tadpole in 1952 and it gave us Dolly, the Finn Dorset sheep, the first mammal to be cloned. The product of reproductive cloning is an animal that has the same nuclear DNA as another animal, but it is not identical, because some of its genes come from elsewhere in the egg and are not ‘reprogrammed’ the same way. Genes from the nucleus of a donor cell are transferred to an egg whose nucleus has been removed. The  egg is then treated to encourage cell division. Once it reaches the right stage, it is implanted into the womb of a surrogate to continue growing naturally until it is born. These clones will not be identical duplicates…only their chromosomal/nuclear DNA is the same. Some of the clones genetic materials come from the mitochondria in the egg. Mitochondria contain their own little bits of DNA and “acquired mutations in mitochondrial DNA are believed to play an important role in the aging process” and some scientists believe that “ errors or incompleteness in the reprogramming process cause the high rates of death, deformity, and disability often  seen among animal clones.”  Also unknown in this process is the effect of the surrogate that carries the baby and is so closely connected to it.

Another part of the problem with cloning is the low success rate; Dolly  was the only success out of 276 tries.  Prometea, the first cloned horse (born in 2003) came from 841 male and female embryos out of which only 8 male and 14 females developed to the blastocyst stage ( 5 days of cell division). Only 17 embryos were able to be implanted, and only 4 pregnancies came from those and Prometea was the only one out of all those to survive. Reproductive cloning, it is hoped, can dependably and constantly reproduce animals who are special or have special qualities. In the case of horses, ViaGen  (among others) is actively cloning Quarter horses and others to preserve bloodlines and to extend the breeding life of stallions and mares by creating newer duplicates. Reproductive cloning can probably be used to help endangered species, such as the gaur which was, in 2001, the first clone of an endangered wild animal to be born (it died from infection shortly after birth). In the same year,  Italian scientists reported cloning a mouflon, an endangered wild sheep.  I cannot find enough information on what would happen if clones breed. They can if bred with a non clone.

Reproductive cloning is still expensive and not terribly successful, although success rates are better now than they were when Dolly and Promotea were born. More than 1000 nuclear transfers could be required to produce between 1-3 viable clones. Cloned animals sometimes have weakened immune systems and suffer more infections and  tumours, and other problems such as LOS or large organ syndrome, which can cause unnaturally large babies or babies with organs too large for their bodies. Many clones just haven’t lived long enough for us to know how they age, because being healthy as babies does not adumbrate life-long health or even simple survival. Problems may come from ‘programming errors’ in the genetic material from a donor cell. When an embryo is created by natural means (the old fashioned way) from the union of sperm and egg, it gets copies of most genes from both its parents. Something called “imprinting” chemically marks the DNA from the mother and father so that only one copy of a gene is ‘turned on’. Defects in the genetic ‘imprint’ of DNA from a single donor cell may lead to some of the abnormalities of cloned animals, because we  program which ones turn on, not nature, and we may not get it right.

So, cloning is being done, but the success rates are still prohibitive. As is the cost. You can find ads for companies that will clone your horse for you in equine magazines and there are those who have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to clone their pets. (Why anyone would do that is beyond me, discovering love with a new friend is so much better, even if you grieve forever for your lost pet.) Farmers have cloned hundreds of cows and the offspring of these cloned animals have already entered the food supply.

The following came from an article in Newsweek Magazine….(the bits in parentheses are mine)….

“Should consumers be afraid? There is some evidence that cloned animals show a higher propensity for developmental problems, such as mental retardation. That would be tragic in a human, but the milk from a retarded cow is not necessarily any different from the milk from a smarter than average cow. Indeed, the European scientists found no compositional or nutritional differences in the milk or meat derived from clones, and “no evidence of any abnormal effects” in the progeny of cloned animals. (most studies only studied 5 or 6 animals…not exactly exhaustive)

New research about genetics may be indirectly fueling fears about cloning. Scientists have learned in recent years that what goes on in the cell’s molecular machinery is far more complicated than they used to think. Epigeneticists have begun to enumerate ways in which traits can be passed from one generation to the next that have nothing to do with DNA. This raises the theoretical possibility that cloning may have unintended effects even though a cloned animal is an exact DNA replica of the original. “Although successful clones may appear normal, the possibility remains that some may harbor subtle genetic defects that could impair their health or make them unsafe for consumption,” said the Union of Concerned Scientists in a statement. Most anticloning groups use similar reasoning in calling for more time and more studies before cloned meat and milk are allowed to be sold as food. “If you don’t get all the details, you don’t know your subject,” says Sonja Van Tichelen, director of the Eurogroup for Animals.

The problem with epigenetic effects is that nobody knows what they might be, or even if, in the case of cloned livestock, they would have any effect worth noting. The safety authorities in the United States and Europe have apparently reasoned that a theoretical possibility is not reason enough to ban the practice.”

(Are these the same people who said cattle and pigs could eat dead cattle and pigs and that that would be safe? Remember Creutzfeld-Jacob disease and the Mad Cow Mess? Mad Cow is Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy…a prion disease that may sometimes come from a genetically mutated prion. )

Why then are there those talking about cloning any animal for any reason? Even for preserving bloodlines? The companies involved in the technology do, of course, they stand to make money, but there are many concerns about cloning. Many racetracks and, I believe, the Jockey Club, have banned clones from racing, and cloned meat has not been proven safe to eat…nor has it been proven unsafe…there is simply not enough data.  There are also concerns about the welfare of the animals involved and the further commodification (if that is a word) of animals when so many people worldwide are trying to change the way animals are treated now.


“The European Group on Ethics in Science and New Technologies (EGE) provided an opinion on ethical aspects of animal cloning for food supply in January 2008. This complements EFSA’s work because EFSA does not have a mandate to consider ethical, moral or other societal issues beyond its scientific remit.
The EGE opinion concludes that “considering the current level of suffering and health problems of surrogate dams and animal clones, the EGE has doubts as to whether cloning animals for food supply is ethically justified. Whether this applies also to offspring is open to further scientific research. At present, the EGE does not see convincing arguments to justify the production of food from clones and their offspring.” The EGE also identifies requirements for future action should food from animal clones be introduced into Europe in the future.” from the EFSA site (European Food Safety Authority)

I believe we should be concerned that if cloning humans is not morally and ethically acceptable, why is it okay to do this, to cause suffering, to destroy countless embryos, to species other than ourselves, who have no say in the matter at all. There are so many instances of mankind doing what we think is the right thing, biologically speaking, only to find out down the road, that we have royally screwed things up, for the species involved and for ourselves. Cloning for the sake of cloning may be the wrong decision. Perhaps using a technology just because we can is not the best way forward. A step or two back, and a lot more thought, might be a very good idea. Greed is not the best impetus or guide to what we as humans should allow in business or in life.

I am not completely anti-cloning. However, nothing I have heard or read over the years has convinced me yet that it is a good thing, a necessary thing. It seems to be a technology growing and developing because we can, not because of its inherent value. And I am very concerned that we do not know enough about what we are doing when we mess around with genes, and nature, and play God. I do believe in biological diversity and its importance in nature. I believe in wide and deep gene pools being the means of evolution, change and survival for our species and all the others we share this planet with. Wild horses are already at risk because of what the BLM is doing with their culling and roundups…they do not pay attention to family and bloodlines and the shrinking gene pool they leave behind. Cheetahs are suffering because there are not enough to breed with a gene selection broad enough to produce the healthiest, most viable babies. Tigers, one of the most critically endangered species on the planet are also at risk in terms of their health and their genes.

Biological diversity is a wondrous and beautiful thing. Who would ever want things to be or to look the same? The union of sperm and egg is miraculous and what it produces, unique. Yes we can selectively breed for special qualities, but when we let babies be produced the old fashioned way, we get a surprise, an individual, a unique creature, human or animal, and I truly believe it is the way we should remain committed to…not to the production of rows of chromosomally identical clones. Just because we can…should we? I leave you with some thoughts that I find helpful when pondering the future and the welfare of animals, ourselves and our planet…

“As human beings, our greatness lies not so much in being able to remake the world-that is the myth of the atomic age-as in being able to remake ourselves”  Mahatma Gandhi

“The animals of the world exist for their own reasons. They were not made for humans any more than black people were made for white, or women created for men.”  Alice Walker

and finally, from Thomas Jefferson, “I hope our wisdom will grow with our power, and teach us that the less we use our power the greater it will be.”

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