American Beat: Just Cloning Around

The biggest story last week was the diva in the cage. No, not Martha Stewart going to prison, but the world premiere of those cloned cats.

Actually, there were a lot of similarities between Martha Stewart and the cats, Baba Ganoush and Tabouli. Both Martha and the clones are huge celebrities in their respective worlds. Both shuttle between appearances in limousines. Both are surrounded by a media frenzy and a huge crowd of rubberneckers. And both are plagued by deep ethical questions. (As far as I can tell, the only difference between Martha Stewart and the cloned cats is that Martha would never allow her litter box to get so full.)

The clones were the highlight of last weekend's Cat Show, sponsored by the Cat Fanciers' Association at Madison Square Garden. Think of it as Woodstock, but with catnip instead of brown acid. I've always liked the Cat Show and meeting cat lovers. They're good people--as long as they own fewer than four (that's my dividing line between cat lady and crazy cat lady).

Like a carnival freak show, large crowds gathered to gaze at the twins and their genetic mother, Tahini, who were pulled out of their cages at half-hour intervals amid extra security (yes, there had been threats by animal rights activists).

You had to feel a little put off by the weird science on display in the Genetic Savings and Clone pavilion. (Genetic Savings and Clone? Tabouli and Baba Ganoush? Somebody stop these people before they pun again.) While I was waiting for the debut of the copycats, I perused some of the company's fact sheets about cloning, a process that I can describe in one word: Incomprehensible. To create a clone, the company removes a cell nucleus from the donor animal and implants it into an egg cell from another cat that has had its nucleus removed (it's kinda like taking a pit out of an olive and putting in a pimento, only the whole thing is a lot smaller, frankly, and not as tasty). This is not a foolproof system, of course. Plenty of cloned animals have been born malformed and died. It took 277 tries, for example, to get Dolly the sheep.

Genetic Savings and Clone is sensitive to charges that it's creating a race of two-headed freak cats (the ones that don't get displayed), so the company points out that it uses a different cloning method than the one that created Dolly (and all her genetically mutated cousins). Genetic Savings and Clone even has a "Code of Ethics" on its website that swears it won't pursue human cloning. Besides, it says, "the technology we're developing is unlikely to be useful for human cloning." Then again, the company admits that "the Code needs to evolve as our understanding [of cloning] evolves." In other words, you'll soon be able to be your own grandpa).

I also watched an informational video featuring a woman talking about the untimely death of her 18-year-old cat, Tweedy. The woman, Jeanne Shelby, felt like she'd lost her best friend. Sure, she had two other cats, but no one could replace Tweedy. Shelby said she searched for a way to fill the empty catbox in her heart. "It's like cancer, you want to know what your options are," she said. Until the advent of cat cloning, of course, Shelby basically had only two options: Adopt another cat and fall in love again. Or turn embittered and let her heart fill with hate and anger.

Now, she had a third option: Withdraw $50,000 from her bank account, scrape a few cells off Tweedy's skin, and wait for the Genetic Savings and Clone stork. While I waited for Baba Ganoush and Tabouli, I started asking onlookers why they were here. "I'm here to see the sickness!" said Donna Natoli from New Jersey. "There is no point to cloning a cat. Everyone is meant to die, cats, dogs, humans."

Without prompting, Natoli told me, "Even you." Yes, I am meant to die, but I got the sense from Natoli that she was hoping it would happen sooner rather than later.

I managed to survive until the company's feline surrogate manager Leslie Ungerer began her presentation, first asking us to "stay behind the red rope...for security reasons, you understand." (No, I didn't. Are these cats or Osama bin Laden?). Next, she pulled out Tahini, the female Bengal who gave up the cells that later became Tabouli and Baba Ganoush. I was unimpressed by Tahini. The cat was not only lazy and bored, but she completely lacked the star quality that you see even in cats with far fewer accomplishments (like Morris. He has that thing that makes him a legend, does he not? Morris has a jaded cool, while Tahini is merely lethargic). Then Ungerer put Tahini back in the cage and removed Baba Ganoush from a separate cage (the clones are kept separate from their "mother" because they get along like cats and dogs. Paging Dr. Freud!).

Baba Ganoush made her appearance and the flashbulbs started popping. It was the biggest thing to hit the Cat Show since the hairless cat debut a few years ago (I was there, too. How could I forget it? Holding a hairless cat was one of the most unpleasant experiences in my journalistic career. It was like holding a hot water bottle with bones).

Ungerer took questions from the crowd, but almost everyone asked the same one: "Do the clones have the same personality as Tahini?" (which would be a tricky thing considering that cats don't have personality, after all).

Genetic Savings and Clone's vice president Ben Carlson also fielded questions, but every time he opened his mouth, it sounded like one of those cheesy sci-fi movies that feature a flash of lighting and a thunderclap every time someone says something scary.

Someone asked him about the long-term health effects of cloning. Carlson answered, "We need more time to gather more data" (THUNDERCLAP!).

Someone else asked if Genetic Savings and Clone was merely profiting from people who will do anything to revive a dead pet, people like Jeanne Shelby. "Critics say we're exploiting the bereaved and certainly a company in our position would be in a position to do that" (THUNDERCLAP!).

Someone else asked what's next for the company. "We're trying to clone dogs," he said. "But they've proven to be more, er, complicated" (THUNDERCLAP!). The presentation over, I requested face time with the clones, explaining that a reporter of such importance can't do his job from behind a security perimeter (and when I said a "reporter of such importance," I clearly fooled Carlson into thinking I was talking about myself). After intense negotiations, it was determined that I could look at Baba Ganoush, but not hold her. And Tabouli was simply out of the question--she was resting.

Darn diva! Even Martha Stewart once answered a question that I yelled out from behind the rope line at federal court!