The American Quarter Horse Association is “the world’s largest equine breed registry.” Now they’re going to get even larger, because a court has ruled they must accept cloned horses' applications to join their exclusive club.
The saga began last August when horse owner Jason Abraham and two of his companies, Abraham & Veneklasen Joint Venture and Abraham Equine Inc., filed a lawsuit against the AQHA in Amarillo, Texas, because they had rejected cloned pets' AQHA applications. Last month, US District Court Judge Mary Lou Robinson ordered the AQHA to allow cloned horses to register among other elite animals. Predictably, the wealthy horse owners are pissed.
“Clones don't have parents. Cloning is not breeding,” the AQHA said in a press release. “There is a fundamental, shared belief among AQHA members that the art and science of breeding is the way to improve the breed.”
86 percent of the association's members strongly oppose allowing clones into their midst. Although they don’t believe cloning is up to their strict breeding standards, there’s a possibility they might reconsider their opinion if there was a test to distinguish the difference between a clone and a naturally bred animal—the organization is known for performing DNA tests on registered horses if their heritage is called into question. However, right now there is no genetic difference between a clone and her source.
The process of cloning is simple enough. In order to clone horses, a company called ViaGen takes a small tissue sample from an animal, and then inserts the DNA into an egg that has had its past genetic material removed. The embryos are kept in an incubator for several days, and then moved into a surrogate female animal. Although these clones are genetically identical to regular animals, the AQHA believes clones’ origins and largely unstudied health problems make them inferior to naturally bred horses.
The controversy about clones' health goes back to the first cloned animal, Dolly the sheep. After Professor Keith Campbell created Dolly in 1996, both he and his creation came to tragic ends—Dolly died of lung cancer, which was the result of a virus and not a genetic defect, according to researchers, and Professor Campbell tied a belt around his neck and hanged himself from a ceiling beam when he was drunk.
These untimely deaths weren't the beginning of a trend of cloned animals getting awful diseases and their creators going insane. “Cloned foals are healthy and normal. All pass an insurance exam prior to being released to client,” ViaGen President Blake Russell told me in an email.
His company's site sells a similar story. One video exhibits beautiful horses with shiny coats and muscular bodies, all of them clones of previous champions, and in a “success story,” Charmayne James, a barrel-racing champion, writes, “He looks so much like Scamper—when I walked in the stall and looked at him, the hair on the back of my neck just stood up. There’s no doubt that they are much alike. Clayton is so tough and strong.” Blake believes the real problem with cloning is that it’s so expensive, but he says cloned horses are becoming “increasingly popular.”
Some might worry that if cloning became too cheap anyone with a crazy idea could gain access to the technology. For example, a dentist who bought one of John Lennon’s rotten molars is hoping to bring a DNA sequencing lab on board for a one million dollar cloning project. When asked about the dark side of cloning, Blake said, “All advanced reproductive techniques have the ability to be utilized for good or bad.” The AQHA would agree with this statement. “Sometimes too much of a ‘good’ thing—like copying a popular or elite horse over and over again for breeding purposes—can lead to a bad thing,” the AQHA said.
The association also worries the practice could narrow the gene pool and allow existing genetic conditions to prevail, Tom Persechino, an AQHA spokesman, told me. Blake believes the AQHA is shooting itself in the foot. “The greatest challenge for the AQHA has been the role of a vocal few who have limited the discussion and potential adoption of the technology as an approved method for producing registered horses,” he said. “The technology is being actively used in the breed, and it is important and responsible for the AQHA to recognize this and incorporate the necessary rules to govern their registration.”
Jeremy Gruber, President of the Council for Responsible Genetics, worries about companies like ViaGen's practices. He told me he believes further testing is necessary before cloning becomes a widespread practice. He also worries the horse-cloning scandal is simply a money-making scheme by companies that clone animals—another 21st century money making machine.
The AQHA also believes that cloning isn't actually changing the world. “With clones we're not moving forward,” the AQHA said in a statement, “we're staying the same.”
This post originally appeared at VICE.