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Pet Cloning and Relationships of Care

In response to the question “Why clone pets?" critic Hilary Bok notes the following:

Pet owners love their pets. When an animal one loves dies, the most natural thing in the world is to want that animal back. Just as a parent whose child has died is unlikely to be comforted by the thought that there are plenty of other children waiting for adoption, most grieving pet owners are not consoled by the thought that they can always adopt another dog or cat. This is not because pet owners are unduly sentimental or confused about the differences between pets and children. It is because, like parents, they love individuals, and adopting another dog or cat will not replace the individual they have loved and lost. (2002, 235)

Bok eloquently identifies the reasons a person might consider cloning a cat or dog. Indeed, the stories surrounding individuals who have successfully cloned their pets give credence to her claim that, like parents, they “love individuals" and have deep connections to them. Consider, for example, the case ofJoyce Bernann McKinney, a woman who lived a solitary farm life in North Carolina with an assortment of horses and dogs. McKinney’s deep attachment to her pit bull Booger derived from the fact that he saved her life and aided in her recovery from an attack by her other pit bull, Tough Guy. As she recounts her story, when Tough Guy unexpectedly attacked her, she screamed for Booger’s help, and Booger defended her by warding off the other pit bull, giving McKinney the chance to flee. The attack left her with severe injuries that required multiple surgeries and a long period of convalescence; during her recuperation Booger again assisted her by pulling off her shoes and socks at night, helping her in and out of the bathtub, and even turning doorknobs (Woestendiek 2010, 32-33). As McKinney states, “Booger taught me not to give up, not to feel sorry for myself. Booger made me feel like a whole person... . Booger taught me I could do anything I could do before—that I just had to figure out a different way to do it" (Woestendiek 2010, 34). It is fair to say that this beloved pet restored McKinney’s sense of self, her ability to be a whole person, and that he gave her the resilience to manage the challenges she faced in recovering from the trauma. Other recent pet cloners share similar stories of deep attachment and sustenance of self in relation to their animal companions (Woestendiek 2010): it is unsurprising, then, that these individuals would turn to pet cloning in an attempt to revive their pets and the relationships that they so treasured.

A feminist relational approach to autonomy takes the individual as understandable in terms of her relationships with others, viewing human beings as primarily beings-in-relationship. Such an approach highlights the inescapable connectedness of selves and the degree to which our connections with others form our relationships, desires, aspirations, and our very identities (Barclay 2000, 52). Instead of understanding selves as “islands unto themselves," and processes of individuation as setting us apart from one another, relational autonomy sees selves as developing out of the relationships in which we are enmeshed. I argue that these identity-constituting relationships can include human-companion animal relationships, given the depth of feeling and the attachment that is often part of them.5 Indeed, some humans (like McKinney) eschew relationships with other human beings and prefer to relate to animals because of the sense of comfort, acceptance, and unconditional love they receive from those relationships. It is often the case that human beings are not so accepting and loving, so it may be understandable that some human beings prefer to relate to animal companions.

This concept of the self as deeply relational fits within a feminist care ethic framework. According to care ethics, traditional Kantian and utilitarian moral frameworks overlook one of the most salient features of human moral life: the capacity for care and human relationship. “Care" involves seeing to the physical support and meeting the needs of self and others. It emphasizes the motivation to care for those who are dependent and vulnerable, and it is inspired by the recognition that, as Eva Kittay puts it, we are all “some mother’s child" (1999, 23). Seen as more of a virtue or a practice than a moral theory in the vein of Kantian or utilitarian theory, care ethics emphasizes the importance to moral deliberation of emotion and the need to reason from particulars.

A care ethic framework thus serves to highlight an entirely different aspect of the pet cloning debate, which I argue is essential to understanding why it may be problematic. The practice represents as fungible the care relationships that are unique unto themselves and, thus, irreplaceable. This is not to claim that would-be pet owners do not appreciate that they are not getting an identical copy of their original pet; nor is it to claim that they are (or necessarily will be) dissatisfied with the pet that results. Rather, my concern is that by engaging in and encouraging such a commercial endeavor, pet cloning agencies are perverting and misrepresenting relationships of care to use them for commercial purposes.

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