CEDAR FALLS – Hello, kitty.
Mr. Tufts Jr. is the color of ink, and his fur is as soft as a cloud. Large copper eyes are filled with curiosity — and more than a little mischief. His athletic legs are spring-loaded for leaping to the top of the china cabinet, fireplace mantel, stair railing and anywhere else he shouldn’t go, but does anyway because, well, he’s a cat.
At nearly nine months old and 8 ½ pounds, his owner describes Mr. Tufts Jr. as “a holy terror,” a four-legged adolescent “little beast” who has suddenly discovered his claws “that he uses to shred toilet paper all over the house.” But of course, there’s the cuddle factor – “he’s sweet and very affectionate.”
Mr. Tufts Jr. is the spitting image of his namesake, Mr. Tufts. That’s because junior is a clone.
The original Mr. Tufts was a copper-eyed, black semi-long-haired, silky cat with a small white “locket” at his throat, a plumed tail and tufts of fur behind his ears and between his toes.
“I had never had such a wonderful creature. It was harder losing him than any other cat I’ve ever had,” said the owner, a Cedar Falls retiree who wants to remain anonymous.
She was heartbroken when he died. But she had him cloned.
Dr. Kevin Christman of Cedar Valley Veterinary Center in Cedar Falls collected small living tissue samples from his patient, the original Mr. Tufts.
“We had to sedate him and take a little skin, fat and hair – tiny pieces of tissue, like taking a biopsy sample,” he said. It’s the first time in his 10 years as a vet that he’s done a procedure for cloning an animal. “Obviously, I’m science-minded, so it was very interesting and kind of cool. He was an awesome cat, so what better cat than Mr. Tufts?”
The tissue samples were sent to ViaGen Pets in Cedar Park, Texas, pet cloning and genetic preservation specialists. “The common bond with all our clients is the extreme love and connection to their pets. It’s such a special bond that the owner can’t imagine what it will be like without that pet,” said Melain Rodriguez, ViaGen client services manager.
ViaGen has cloned dogs, cats and horses, including the first successfully cloned endangered Przewalski’s horse for San Diego Zoo, which was born in August.
A cloned cat is a genetic twin of the original cat, Rodriguez said. No genetic modification takes place and the cloned cat shares many attributes of the original cat, including appearance, intelligence and temperament. It is no more susceptible to health issues than any other cat. Once received by ViaGen, tissue samples collected by the veterinarian are cultured, and then cultured cells are frozen and stored.
“These cells can be stored for many years. There is no expiration date. The Przewalski’s horse cells were frozen for 40 years before cloning,” explained Rodriguez, who owns a 2-year-old cloned Bengal cat.
Christman received an information packet and followed ViaGen’s step-by-step instructions on what was needed for the process.
Although postmortem samples aren’t uncommon, Rodriguez said “it’s much better to have samples from living cells. We recommend pet owners let their vets know that they’re interested in cloning or want to clone their pet, so they can be proactive about getting a tissue sample, such as when the pet is under anesthesia for a dental cleaning or spay-neuter, to be prepared for when that time comes.”
When the Cedar Falls client was ready to clone Mr. Tufts, ViaGen Pets took one of the frozen cells to replace the nucleus of a female cat’s egg. Through a patented process, the egg and cell were joined together and an embryo started to grow. The embryo was then transferred to a surrogate mother cat, similar to in vitro fertilization in humans. After a normal pregnancy period, Mr. Tufts’ genetic twin was born. The nursing period was the same as for any kitten, said Rodriguez.
Each animal involved in the cloning process is under constant care by veterinarians and the ViaGen team to ensure comfort, health and well-being, she noted.
Mr. Tufts Jr. is the spitting image of her beloved original cat, the owner said.
“The only physical difference, as far as I can see, is in health and body condition. The original T had been found on a forest trail and had a very bad respiratory illness.”
She also adopted the surrogate cat, which she named Surri G Momcat.
Mr. Tufts Jr. was born Jan. 23. Rodriguez delivered Mr. Tufts Jr. and Momcat to the owner March 29 at the Cedar Rapids Airport. They rode in the cabin with her from Texas.
Both cats are in fine health and doing well. Christman is caring for the cats and a grateful owner named him godfather to Mr. Tufts Jr. “My furry godchild,” the vet said, laughing. “He’s a handsome cat, full of personality – and has tufts of fur in his ears like the original Mr. Tufts.”
Like his namesake, the young feline likes to head-butt greetings, then roll onto his side and stretch into an arch for a good belly rub. “Our new Mr. Tufts Jr. is much more athletic than our original, probably because he, and Momcat, too, had the best of care,” the owner explained. The original Mr. T was a rescue cat.
Cat cloning costs $35,000; dogs are $50,000.
“I could afford it. We don’t have any children. I don’t spend money on clothes or hair, I live frugally, and I drive a 31-year-old car. T Jr. is so beautiful — he’s gone from being a fluffy fur ball to a sleek, silky cat. I’m just so happy. I wanted to adopt Momcat, too, because I owe her a good life,” the owner explained.
Still, she feels the need to “make amends” for spending such a large sum on cloning her cat. She has underwritten the cost of several spay-neuter clinics for Cedar Valley Veterinary Center, is paying for her great-niece’s university education and has committed an amount equal to the cloning fee to Habitat for Humanity.