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Genetic casting

Animal film stars canít storm off the set or refuse to make a sequel. But they can die, or age too quickly to finish even one film, let alone support a franchise of sequels. Animal-movie directors are routinely plagued by the hassle of replacing a star dog, cat, or pig with look-alikes that will fool the audience. But while some filmmakers have switched to CGI animation to solve their animal-casting problems, others are looking toward cloning as a way to prolong a four-legged actorís career.

A San Francisco bioengineering company, Genetic Savings and Clone (www.savingsandclone.com), recently gained notoriety for producing the first successful clone of a household pet; last week ó right in time for Christmas ó they delivered their first pet to a paying customer, a woman in Texas who spent $50,000 for a nine-week-old kitten named Little Nicky. And out of "several hundred" clients, GS&C vice-president of communications Ben Carlson confirmed, the company has worked with Hollywood dogs and cats. Although Carlson couldnít name the clients, to date theyíve only gone as far as "gene banking" the animals ó preserving tissue for future cloning. That process costs less than a Hollywood dinner tab ó $1395 up front and $100 to $150 per year for tissue storage. An actual clone costs $50,000 for a cat. Genetic Savings hopes to produce dogs by next year.

Of course, betting on a clone to act the part is as risky as ... well, as betting on the sequel itíll star in. "The easiest way to conceive of what a clone is, is to think of it as a later-born identical twin," says Carlson, noting that an animal actor needs more than good genes to become a movie star. Take Benji (who has been played by a minimum of four different mutts through the 1974 release of the original Benji through this yearís Benji: Off the Leash) as a hypothetical example. "If somebody wanted to clone the dog who plays Benji," Carlson explains, "we could provide the raw material, as it were, in the form of a puppy thatís genetically identical to Benji. And then all of those various people who would groom and train and then film Benji would have their own role to play."

Only a living or recently deceased animal can provide tissue for cloning, so donít expect to see Rin Tin Tin or Spuds MacKenzie making comebacks. And the process isnít perfect: environmental and other factors caused GS&Cís first success, a calico cat named "CC" (for Carbon Copy), to wind up with different markings from its genetic donor. As for the ethical issues, critics object to the number of embryos that are destroyed to make a viable animal, and the health troubles that can shorten their lives ó though the cloning industry contends that new techniques may curb both problems.

In Hollywood, the organization that could best weigh in on this is the American Humane Association, which monitors the treatment of animals ó from horses to roaches ó in movies and commercials. "At this point we donít have an official stand on the issue [of animal cloning]," says Sara Spaulding, vice-president of communications for the AHA. "But our mission with the LA film office is to protect animals that are used in the making of a film. So we donít have oversight at the current time for what happens to the animal prior to it getting to the production set."

By those rules, cloning could be tolerated like any other breeding process. But at least, one assumes, the AHA would block the use of disposable stunt doubles.

Issue Date: December 31, 2004 - January 6, 2005
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