SACRAMENTO — Besides the two kittens they've already sold, several more are "in production" at Sausalito, Calif.-based Genetic Savings & Clone, which made national headlines last year as the nation's only commercial pet-cloning company.
When clients eventually take delivery of the latest crop, the cats will cost $32,000 each, a relative bargain given that the company charged $50,000 last year.
Those looking for a living legacy for a favorite feline can expect prices to fall again, company officials said, as work becomes more efficient. And soon, the company hopes to offer cloned dogs.
But some Sacramento lawmakers believe Genetic Savings & Clone has no business doing business in California.
Cloning hurts animals, exploits grieving pet owners and is unnecessary in a state that kills more than a million unwanted dogs and cats each year, said Assemblyman Lloyd Levine (D-Van Nuys), whose bill, AB 1428, would make it illegal to sell cloned pets in California.
Further, Levine would ban the sale of genetically modified pets, which could affect a San Diego competitor's plan to create and sell allergy-proof cats: felines altered to remove a protein that causes some humans to sneeze. That company, Allerca, also plans to start selling cloned horses later this year. Levine said horses would not be covered under his bill because they are not considered pets.
The legislation would not shut down the companies but would block California residents from buying cloned or genetically modified cats and dogs. Californians make up a sixth to one-quarter of his company's nationwide business, said Genetic Savings & Clone's chief executive, Lou Hawthorne.
"We're totally open to reasonable additional oversight," he said. "But a ban doesn't make any sense."
Company officials argue that Levine and the animal protection groups that support his bill misunderstand the business. Genetic Savings & Clone spokesman Ben Carlson said the company is careful to tell potential customers that it cannot re-create a favorite pet; it can produce only an animal that will probably look like that pet and may reflect some of its personality.
They also say their company helps curb the population of unwanted dogs and cats by spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to buy eggs -- an essential ingredient of cloning -- from spay clinics.
"We hope to persuade the state Legislature that we are not misleading consumers," said Carlson, "that we're not harming animals and we're not contributing to the population of homeless pets."
But Levine is skeptical.
He argues that people haven't thought through the long-term implications of cloning, ethically or technically.
Animals, he said, "are not toys to be played with at our amusement."
"I'm concerned that once we start down this road, that's where we're heading," Levine said. " 'Oh gee, the cat got hit by a car, we'll just clone another one.' "
No one knows what might happen if hypoallergenic cats begin breeding with other cats, Levine said, adding that when breeders crossed African and European bees, they unintentionally created aggressive "killer bees."
"Maybe we ought to figure out some of these questions before we rush 'Franken-kitty' to marketplace," Levine said.
Jennifer Fearing, president of United Animal Nations, a national rescue and animal advocacy group that sponsors Levine's bill, said she understands the impulse to do anything to save a pet.
When her Labrador retriever was dying of cancer last fall, she said, there were times when she would have jumped at the notion of cloning if a vet had suggested it.
But that would have been taking advantage of her grief, Fearing said.
"I realize now it would be an insult to my dog's life to take a scraping of him and suggest that he could be rebuilt in a lab," she said. "That's not accepting, honoring the life he had."
She argues that cloning is an inefficient process that hurts animals. Surrogate cats must undergo surgery twice to insert embryos and remove kittens, and studies have shown that cloned animals suffer a higher rate of defects and disease. Although society might be willing to sacrifice some animals in the search for a cure for a disease, Fearing said, nothing comes of cloning but designer pets.
"We have a massive, massive pet overpopulation in this country," she said. "We do not need more pets, period."
Animal rights activists also complain that there is no oversight of the businesses that clone pets and store tissue that might be used some day for cloning.
Hawthorne, of Genetic Savings & Clone, said his company is willing to abide by federal standards.
"We'd love to have [the U.S. Department of Agriculture] step in and say our operations are covered by the Animal Welfare Act," he said. "Our own protocols are much more stringent."