To the casual motorist driving down the long, flat country road outside Gainesville, an hour north of Dallas, Blake Russell’s eighty-acre horse farm probably looks like any other in the area. The wide, green pastures are dotted with hay racks and bored-looking mares flicking away flies with their silken tails. A steel ranch sign, depicting a man, a woman, and two horses crowded around a cross, hangs over a narrow driveway that winds up a hill to a cozy limestone house.
But a particularly observant traveler might take note of the unusually wide variety of breeds represented in the fields. There are compact, reliable American quarter horses, a Friesian with the glossy black mane of a shampoo model, draft horses the size of Airstream trailers, and a Dutch warmblood with long legs and the haughty, regal demeanor of minor European nobility. One might wonder how a veritable United Nations of the equine world ended up here in Cooke County.
And maybe, if the motorist had an especially keen eye for such things, she would remark upon how similar those two sorrel fillies look or how that chubby blue roan bears an uncanny resemblance to a famous cutting horse. But even then, she probably wouldn’t guess what’s really going on here. You don’t generally assume you’re looking at clones, after all.
This is no regular horse farm, and Blake Russell is no regular horse farmer. Russell is the president of ViaGen Pets & Equine, a prolific commercial animal cloning facility. The company primarily clones cats, dogs, and horses, though it has also cloned pigs, cows, and sheep. More recently, ViaGen started applying its technology to conservation efforts, cloning an endangered Przewalski’s horse, Kurt, for the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance, and an endangered black-footed ferret named Elizabeth Ann for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
You name it, ViaGen can clone it for you—just as long as “it” is a nonprimate mammal and “you” are someone with tens of thousands of dollars to spare. Replicating your beloved Pomeranian will set you back $50,000; cloning a horse costs $85,000. Cats are a steal at $35,000. (Russell said the cat side of the business hasn’t taken off the way the other two have, though. He’s not sure why but offered, “Cat people and dog people are very different.”)
These prices are prohibitively expensive for most, and questions remain about the ethics and implications of commercial cloning, but the practice is increasingly popular. ViaGen is one of just a couple companies around the world that provide the service: to ranchers hoping to strengthen their stock, to equestrian athletes looking to replicate dependable steeds, and to wealthy pet owners who want to enjoy a copy of their beloved animal companions.
ViaGen’s headquarters is just north of Austin, in Cedar Park, but ever since Russell bought his farm, in 2018, he’s started bringing more of his work home with him, so to speak. He cares for some of the company’s pregnant surrogates and their clone babies here in his personal stables with the help of visiting ViaGen employees, farm staff, and his family. On the day I visited, Russell guessed that there were about 150 ViaGen horses on the property or on nearby tracts he uses—pregnant surrogate mares, soon-to-be-pregnant mares, and postpartum mares that are raising their newborn clones until they are old enough to be sent off to their new homes.
Surrogates that are too old to bear any more colts often remain with the other horses just to keep them company. At one point, while we were petting a young filly clone who was about to be shipped off to Belgium to begin her show-jumping career, Russell pointed out a group of four mares clustered around a nearby fence, eyeing us suspiciously, like a group of long-faced middle schoolers scoping out a new girl from across the school cafeteria. Three of the four were pregnant, he explained, but the fourth, a small chestnut, stayed with the others because she was a “really close friend.”
Most of the farm’s operations are related to ViaGen, but Russell also has twenty horses of his own that he and his family ride, including two clones. One, Royal Blue Boon Too, is a seventeen-year-old blue roan quarter horse mare derived from a revered cutting horse. This current iteration of Boon is a “tick too fat for her age,” Russell admitted. “But we just love her so much we can’t tell her no.” Russell is similarly indulgent with his second clone, Pure Tailor Fit, whom I saw from a distance at first and then, suddenly, right up close.
Fit, as Russell and his family call him, is a fifteen-year-old stallion copied from the late gelding Tailor Fit, the two-time world champion racing quarter horse. He’s a muscular, stocky bay who maintains his physique by spending long hours trotting back and forth in the paddock, trying to impress the mares in the field across the way. On the surprisingly tolerable day in August that Russell showed me around the farm, Fit dashed to the edge of his enclosure to meet us. Alarmingly, he made his approach butt-first, his huge, glossy rump speeding toward our faces, like a great mahogany moon blotting out the sky.
Though admittedly no equestrian, I know that when a horse aims its back end at you, it’s usually bad news. I calculated that despite the sturdy wire fence between us, a swift, strong kick of Fit’s rear leg could, depending on the angle of propulsion, easily pulverize my pelvic cradle or my kneecap. Russell, standing next to me, seemed unfazed, so I held still, trying to look as blasé as one possibly can when every muscle in one’s body is fully tensed and braced for impact.
When Fit’s rear pressed against the fence, I scanned him for any signs that he was getting ready to two-step along my skeleton. He appeared to be relaxed, though, as did Russell, who reached out and scratched the base of the stallion’s tail. As he did, he looked at me apologetically. This wasn’t a clone thing, he explained.
“When he was a baby, we rubbed his butt all the time,” he said. “I’m a horse person; I knew better. But I would sit in a lawn chair in his pen when he was a baby, and he would back in, and I would rub his tail head right here, and then he’d want to sit in my lap. And I knew better! That’s a terrible thing to teach a horse that’s gonna get to twelve hundred pounds. But he loved it so much I just couldn’t stop. So nowadays he’ll see me, and he’ll say, ‘Hey, come rub my butt.’ ”
Not wanting to seem like an ungrateful guest, I also reached out and rubbed Fit’s butt. The stallion leaned deeper into the fence, his ears twitching happily.
“President of an animal cloning company” is a title that evokes a C-list James Bond villain, one who wears overly shiny suits and is intent on disrupting the world order with armies of cloned panthers or something. But Russell didn’t cut a sinister figure. He described himself as a “part-time cowboy”—he and his family and friends were out roping until almost midnight the night before—and he showed me around the farm in jeans and a light blue shirt. By the time I left, he had invited me and my immediate family to come back anytime and stay in one of the multiple guesthouses on his farm, eat his food, and ride his horses. In fact, he was slightly distressed that I hadn’t come for dinner the previous evening. Did I have enough water for the drive back, he wanted to know. Was I sure?
The only time Russell did resemble a movie villain was when he scooped up a small white barn cat with a glittery pink collar, cradled her in his arms à la Dr. Evil, and informed me that her name was Warhawk.
Still, I experienced a disorienting conversational whiplash throughout the day. One minute I was meeting Russell’s daughter, Lexie, who told me how she and her college rodeo team went to nationals in Wyoming this year. The next, ViaGen’s chief science officer, Shawn Walker—a tall, bespectacled geneticist with a voice like a double bass—was discussing the possibility of resuscitating endangered species populations, and I was shown clones that I can’t describe here in any way because their famous owners have insisted on the utmost secrecy. It was like attending a nice family get-together aboard the starship Enterprise.
It all started with Dolly. Sort of. In February 1997, scientists at Scotland’s Roslin Institute introduced Dolly the sheep to the world. But she wasn’t the first animal to be cloned. Back in 1891, German biologist Hans Driesch created a pair of sea urchins by splitting a single sea urchin embryo in half. And in 1903, another German Hans—embryologist Hans Spemann—formed salamander larvae after he sliced a salamander embryo in two using a tiny, delicate hair from his baby’s head. Decades after that, in 1952, American scientists Robert Briggs and Thomas King successfully cloned tadpoles using nuclear transfer (the same technique that would be used to create Dolly more than forty years later), wherein the DNA from an egg is removed and the nucleus injected with the DNA of the animal one seeks to clone.
Dolly wasn’t even the first Dolly, really. Before she was born, there were 277 unsuccessful attempts to clone the six-year-old Finn Dorset sheep the Roslin Institute scientists had selected for their experiment. Of those attempts, only 29 resulted in embryos that were implanted in surrogate mothers, and of those embryos, Dolly was the only one that survived to full term.
What made Dolly special—besides her name, which the research team bestowed upon her because she was cloned from a mammary gland cell and they “couldn’t think of a more impressive pair of glands than Dolly Parton’s”—was that she was the first creature to be successfully cloned from an adult somatic cell. Previously, scientists had managed to create clones only from embryos, meaning that the resulting animals were clones of each other rather than clones of an existing animal. Clones are, in effect, genetic twins, and this new technology allowed scientists to create twins of an animal that would be born at a later date than the original, as opposed to at the same time.
As with most gigantic scientific leaps forward, Dolly’s existence was greeted with both wonder and panic. If scientists could clone a sheep, many wondered, how long until they could clone a human? And what were the implications of that? Even Dr. Ian Wilmut, the head embryologist behind the Dolly experiment, expressed concerns about the science being misused, telling the press in 1997 that he found the idea of human cloning “offensive” and that “it would be desperately sad if people started using this technology with people.”
After Dolly’s birth, the UN spent years studying and debating the big, messy ethical questions of cloning, before releasing, in 2005, its Declaration on Human Cloning, a document that prohibited, somewhat ambiguously, “all forms of human cloning inasmuch as they are incompatible with human dignity and the protection of human life.” That didn’t do much to clear up the confusion, and countries across the globe began to adopt their own laws regarding human cloning. Some, like France and Germany, banned it outright, while others, like the UK, banned reproductive cloning—cloning with the goal of creating a newborn baby that is genetically identical to another human—but allowed the use of cloned human embryos for biomedical research.
Back in the U.S., there was backlash from animal rights groups, including the Humane Society, which views commercial cloning as an abuse of humanity’s power over the animal world that should be prohibited by law, and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which called for a “moratorium on the research, promotion, and sale of cloned and bioengineered pets.” But for every objector, it seemed, there were just as many consumers out there willing to pay big bucks to get their favorite animals duplicated and triplicated.
It was here that ViaGen founder John Sperling, who also founded the University of Phoenix, saw an opportunity. Sperling—the “Howard Hughes of biotech,” according to Wired—was an eccentric billionaire with a keen interest in genetic and longevity research. A year after the Dolly announcement, he donated millions to Texas A&M University to help fund a dog-cloning project that became known as the “Missyplicity Project,” after Missy, the husky mix that Sperling intended to clone. (Though the original Missy passed away, in 2002, four clones were eventually produced in 2007 and 2008.)
Sperling started collecting existing patents and intellectual property related to cloning and amassed a team of experts who would be able to make his commercial animal cloning dreams a reality. He started with the science side, scooping up experts such as Walker, the ViaGen CSO, who has a PhD in genetics from A&M. Then Sperling brought in businesspeople, including Russell, who was then working for a UK-based animal breeding company called PIC (short for Pig Improvement Company), to help sell the dream.
It became Russell’s job to make a brand-new, ever-evolving, and still ethically confusing practice appear appealing, approachable, and dependable—a task to which he seemed preternaturally well suited. He exudes the kind of appealing, approachable, and dependable energy necessary to calm a skittish horse—or make a tough sale.
As a child, Russell wanted to be a vet. He loved animals, and his family always seemed to need a vet on their farm in southern Oklahoma. Russell’s dad bred and raced quarter horses, and Russell grew up riding them, tending to them, and learning the intricacies of breeding them. He knew he wanted to work with them when he grew up, but horses are expensive, and it’s hard to make a comfortable living from breeding and racing alone. “I was always raised with my family telling me, ‘If you want to be in the horse business, you better have a great other job,’ ” Russell recalled.
Russell studied animal science at Oklahoma State University, and he quickly found that there were two tracks you could take in the world of genetics: the technical side, where you got a PhD and conducted research, and the business side, where you got paid. He chose the latter. After graduating, he went to work for PIC, which later paid for him to get an MBA from Emory University, in Atlanta. In 2005, when Sperling offered him the chance to be part of an animal cloning company, he jumped at it. “When Dolly came out, that created a whole different set of questions for us to think through,” Russell said. “I got kind of jazzed by what that might mean.”
ViaGen started with livestock. Cloning was popular with farmers and ranchers, who used it to optimize desirable characteristics in cattle, pigs, and sheep by cloning and breeding the animals with the strongest genes. Over time, the cloning process evolved and became increasingly reliable. Researchers became more efficient at drawing out DNA from genetic samples and creating viable embryos. About five years ago, the company expanded its services to offer the cloning of companion animals, and in 2018 Russell and Walker decided to separate pet and equine operations from the rest of the business.
“When you’re cloning a companion animal, it’s a whole different set of emotions,” Russell explained. “It just became clear to us, ‘Hey, these things are going in different directions.’ ” ViaGen’s livestock operations remained with Trans Ova Genetics, run by Dr. David Faber, and many staffers joined Russell and Walker in what became ViaGen Pets & Equine. (Both Russell and a representative from Trans Ova said the divorce was “amicable.”)
In an anonymous beige office complex in Cedar Park, ViaGen Pets & Equine is tucked between a physical therapist’s office and an audiovisual company. Inside, the walls are covered in blown-up photographs of clients’ clones, each emblazoned along the bottom with “VIAGEN”: fuzzy kittens; a pair of identical Dobermans; a sweet foal; and two jaunty poodle puppies standing next to an older dog, their antecedent poodle.
At the back of the office is a lab where staffers process the DNA from the tissue sample collection kits that they send out to clients. In order to ensure the tissue is in good enough condition for DNA collection, the company recommends that owners (or, preferably, their vets) biopsy pets while they’re alive or, at the very latest, within the first few days after a pet’s death. (When Sanaz Arenivas, ViaGen’s cell culture manager, explained to me the difficulty of cloning genetic material that hasn’t been properly preserved, I nodded and mentally scratched off “Can Jurassic Park happen and when?” from my list of questions.)
Once a DNA sample arrives at the lab, ViaGen harvests living cells from the sample. If the client doesn’t want to clone the pet immediately, the cells are frozen and stored in one of the company’s massive cryogenic vats, where they can be kept indefinitely, until the client is ready to clone. When the time comes, the scientists perform a procedure called somatic cell nuclear transfer, taking the cloned cell of the original pet and implanting it into the nucleus of a female’s egg. Once the cloned embryo has successfully started to grow in the egg, the egg is implanted into a surrogate mother, who carries the egg to term and delivers the baby just as she might in any other pregnancy. (The surrogates don’t treat the clones any differently than they would their own brood, Russell told me: “It’s their baby. They look after it like it’s their baby.”)
ViaGen also enlists a third-party lab to perform DNA tests on every cloned animal so that owners can rest assured that the pet they receive is indeed a clone of their cherished pet, and not some random puppy. Because when clients drop significant sums of money on Fido II, they typically have one big question: Just how similar are clones to their originals?
“If you think about identical twins in humans, if you look for the similarities, you see them; if you look for the differences, you see them,” Russell said as he sat in his sunroom, underneath a large photo of six wolf hybrid puppies he had cloned for a client. Still, he said, the similarities are uncanny. He and Walker described cloned horses who will stand in the same spots in a field as their original, who enjoy being scratched in the same places, and who seem to like and dislike the same people.
“You think about the guys that debated nature versus nurture. Before cloning, there was really no way to dispute one or the other. But now, with cloning, you can actually physically see it,” said Russell. “Genetics are more powerful than we ever dreamed.”
Stubborn misconceptions about cloning are serious marketing hurdles for ViaGen. The biggest one is that cloned animals have more health problems than other animals and/or age prematurely. That rumor started circulating after Dolly developed osteoarthritis in her knee and died, at age six, after contracting a virus that causes lung tumors. Scientists later determined that her having been cloned had nothing to do with the development of osteoarthritis, at least; since then, other Dolly clones have gone on to lead long, rich lives full of delicious roughage (and occasional biomedical experimentation). But this belief is so pervasive, Russell said, that even when he shows visitors his own healthy clones, such as Fit, they express concern about the horses’ life expectancy.
Some clients forget that the clone of their adult pet will not emerge from the womb as an adult. “People will clone their dog, and then they realize, ‘Oh, gosh, I wasn’t ready for a puppy!’ ” Russell said.
The newly initiated may also have difficulty accepting that clones are just . . . regular animals. I found myself scanning ViaGen’s downy-tailed foals for signs of their sci-fi origins—a light neon glow around them, perhaps, or the faint whirring sound of a motor deep in their guts. But all I saw were normal, spindle-legged babies who sniffed my hand curiously before wobbling nervously on tiny, teacup-size hooves back to the safety of their surrogate mother’s side. When a cloned animal is before you, the fact that it is the physical embodiment of some of the most advanced biomedical technology of our time seems almost incidental, like when someone tells you they’re from Cleveland or that they don’t care for salmon.
It’s easy to see why clones are still so misunderstood. They’re not talked about often, even among those who own them, much to the dismay of Russell and ViaGen’s marketing team. The company has had many celebrity clients, he said, but almost all of them choose to remain anonymous. And with good reason. After Barbra Streisand, a ViaGen client, told Variety in 2018 that she had purchased two clones of her fourteen-year-old Coton de Tuléar dog Samantha, online critics deemed the decision “shameful,” “insane,” and “evil.” People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals issued a statement in response to the news, calling Streisand’s decision a “folly” and saying that cloning is a “horror show.”
So Russell understands clients’ reluctance to go public with their clones, but he looked wistful as he talked about how great it would be for business if customers were more open about having used the service. And as for the “Adopt, Don’t Shop” crowd, Russell said, he was “not touching” that issue, though he noted that cloned animals aren’t the ones filling shelters. “Every animal that we produce has a home before we produce it, right?”
While Russell, Walker, and I sat in the sunroom discussing the ethics of cloning, Lexie was busy running a rodeo camp behind the house. She was trying to teach a gaggle of elementary-age children how to rope a calf. The campers looked impossibly small on their steeds, like Polly Pocket dolls strapped to Breyer horse figurines, but they rode confidently, darting around and across the paddock, trying to cut off the calf’s escape. When they got in the right position, the kids flung their ropes into the air, but the calf easily dodged them. At the end of the lesson, the group looked deflated. “Every morning, they think they’re going to be professionals at this by now,” Lexie said later. “They get quickly discouraged when they realize they’re not yet.”
Rodeo is big in Russell’s family, which is just as well, because it’s one of the sports in which clones are allowed to compete. Physically, cloned horses can do anything a regular horse can do, but bureaucratically, things aren’t so simple.
Much like the complex constellation of cloning laws that exist in the human world, in the horse world, the rules regarding cloned animals differ wildly between sports and breed associations. The largest horse-breed registry in the world, for example, the American Quarter Horse Association, does not register clones. As a result, cloned quarter horses are not eligible to compete in lucrative AQHA breeding, racing, or show programs.
In an email, an AQHA representative laid out some of the group’s concerns about clones: that the consequences of cloning are “not yet clear”; that the introduction of clones into the registry makes parentage verification difficult because it “poses certain challenges to AQHA’s ability to differentiate between horses”; and that “the potential of cloning to intensify the narrowing of the gene pool [results] in the worsening of known and unknown genetic diseases or the creation of a new genetic disease.”
In some sports, though, like polo, cloned horses are increasingly well represented. Over the course of a polo match, riders will swap out horses several times. With clones, instead of hopping on a different animal and having to adjust to a different size and stride, a player can jump onto the original horse’s genetic twin, thereby reducing the friction of that transition, Russell explained.
Polo players are big money for ViaGen because instead of ordering one or two clones of a horse, they may order five or ten that they can ride during games. Russell attributed clones’ popularity in the sport to the fact that Adolfo Cambiaso, one of the top players in the world, frequently rides clones of his deceased stallion Aiken Cura. (ViaGen helped produce several of Cambiaso’s clones early on.)
After polo, Russell said, show jumping is the sport for which ViaGen gets the most clone requests. There weren’t any clones at the Olympics this year, but Russell thinks that has more to do with timing than anything else. It can take ten years for a jumper to be Olympics-ready, and, he said, most clones in the sport simply aren’t old enough yet. He’s hopeful some clones will appear in the Paris Olympic Games, in 2024, but given the high levels of secrecy many of his clients choose to maintain, it’s quite possible no one would ever know if they did. “They may not even tell us,” he said. Some clients decline to give ViaGen any details about the original animal besides its species and size.
For the time being, Russell seems to have found a happy balance between farm life and his work reshaping the world of genetics, partly by centering his business around the more ethically palatable area of pet cloning. That’s why right now, for instance, ViaGen will clone only nonprimate mammals: “The human cloning questions, the primate cloning questions—we’re out of that. We don’t entertain it,” he said. Nor does ViaGen offer gene editing services for the animals it produces—another slippery ethical slope it hopes to avoid. If the horse you want to clone had a genetic heart condition, the clone will likely have the same condition.
Russell was conservative when he discussed the future of cloning. While ViaGen’s business has grown in recent years, theirs is still a niche, luxury product. (The company does not release exact numbers, but it has produced more than a thousand cloned horses and about the same number of cloned dogs and cats combined, Russell said.) Even if cloning technology advances to the point where the company could start cranking out clones at a rapid rate, Russell said, that’s not something he’s particularly interested in. “People don’t want us to look like a factory.”
In cloning, as with other areas of animal production and preservation, the lines consumers and producers draw are at once firm and somewhat arbitrary: in the U.S., we eat pigs, one of the most intelligent animals, but we would never eat dogs; we clone, but not too much, and not primates. Though the intellectual and moral inconsistencies of these beliefs become apparent under even the lightest questioning, we cling to them. These lines seem to exist less for the animals’ well-being and more for our own comfort, as a way to reassure ourselves that although humanity continues to press its thumb heavily on the scales of nature, it’s doing so in a thoughtful, responsible way. Right?
Animal cloning doesn’t seem likely to reshape the face of the planet anytime soon. As Russell told me, “You’re not going to wake up in ten years and all of your neighbors are going to have cloned pets.”
Though, I suppose, how could you tell?
Madeleine Aggeler is a writer who lives in Austin.
This article originally appeared in the November 2021 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “My Little Clone-y.” Subscribe today.