Meet China’s ‘Pet Wheelchair King’


SHANGHAI — Wei Lijun was distraught after her 19-year-old dog Fufu had a stroke earlier this year. The mongrel was fully paralyzed and often cried out in pain during the night. “We’d have to carry her outside to someplace quiet to avoid disturbing the neighbors,” Wei tells Sixth Tone.

The 56-year-old worried that Fufu would never walk again, but she refused to contemplate having her beloved pet put down. Finally, a vet suggested a solution: Why not try ordering a wheelchair for Fufu?

Wei searched online and found a business offering customized pet mobility aids for just 630 yuan ($90). A few days later, the new wheelchair arrived, and the effect was almost immediate: Within hours, Fufu was zooming around the streets near Wei’s home in Shanghai.

“It’s magical,” says Wei. “She seems so happy and relaxed when she’s ‘walking’ outside.”

Wei is just one of thousands of Chinese pet owners who have called on the services of Gao Xiaodong, a former migrant worker from Huludao, northeastern Liaoning province, who has helped give countless animals a new lease of life.

A dog walks outside with a wheelchair that Gao Xiaodong made in Beijing, Sept. 16, 2019. Courtesy of Gao Xiaodong

A dog walks outside with a wheelchair that Gao Xiaodong made in Beijing, Sept. 16, 2019. Courtesy of Gao Xiaodong

The 44-year-old claims to have been the first person in China to sell animal mobility aids commercially, opening a small workshop in 2006. What started as a niche venture has since grown into a thriving business, thanks to the explosion in pet ownership in China.

Today, just under 100 million Chinese households have a pet, up 44% since 2014, and the country’s pet industry is worth an estimated 200 billion yuan. Owners are increasingly willing to spend large sums to give their animals a more comfortable life: The market for pet travel products — which includes carriers and mobility solutions — increased by 40% in the past year.

Gao now runs a 300-square-meter factory employing eight people, which churns out more than 4,000 wheelchairs each year. The firm is responsible for nearly all the pet mobility aids sold on e-commerce platforms Taobao and JD.com. The vast majority of other vendors are either agents or business partners of the firm, Gao says.

The Huludao native recalls first seeing a dog wheelchair around 15 years ago, while he was working a door-to-door sales job in Beijing. One of his clients had made a makeshift frame for his paralyzed Pekingese. “He could walk using this device made with a board and four bearings,” says Gao.

Two years later, Gao returned to his hometown to try his luck as an entrepreneur. After a couple of failed ventures selling health care and computer products, he came across the websites of some overseas pet wheelchair makers while searching for new business ideas online. The image of the Pekingese popped into Gao’s head, and he was sure he’d found a winning project. “It just hit me,” he says.

Gao and his wife, Fu Lijuan, made their first prototype for a disabled stray that often begged for food near their home. The “simple car” — which they fashioned from some discarded wood, wire, and roller skate wheels — didn’t look great, but the dog didn’t seem to mind, according to Gao. “He was so eager to try it and was running so fast,” he says.

Gao Xiaodong (left) and his wife Fu Lijuan look at a client’s dog on their phone in Huludao, Liaoning province, 2019. Courtesy of Gao Xiaodong

Gao Xiaodong (left) and his wife Fu Lijuan look at a client’s dog on their phone in Huludao, Liaoning province, 2019. Courtesy of Gao Xiaodong

After this early success, Gao was confident enough to quit his job at a local zinc factory to devote all his energy to the pet wheelchairs business. His parents, however, didn’t take the news well.

“They looked at me with a shocked expression,” says Gao. “They couldn’t believe I’d given up a stable job at a state-owned company for disabled animals.”

At the time, keeping a domestic pet was still a luxury for most people in China. Families had little disposable income, and animals incapacitated by disease or old age were normally put down. Gao and Fu’s neighbors frequently questioned whether the couple had lost their minds.

“None of them had heard of this business, and they didn’t believe that people would actually buy wheelchairs for animals,” says Fu.

During the early years, Gao sometimes wondered if they were right. In 2008, he remembers only selling a handful of wheelchairs each month. Over time, however, his sales figures gradually climbed into the dozens and then the hundreds.

Gao puts the change down to a dramatic shift in social attitudes toward animals. Though China has yet to pass an animal protection law for domestic animals, cities have become much more pet-friendlyand a huge number of animal welfare projects have launched across the country.

“Animals often accompany their owners for many years and emotionally become part of the family,” says Gao. “It’s just like when people are terminally ill — the family will do anything to prolong their lives.”

Wang Jinyu bought a customized wheelchair from Gao for her Yorkshire terrier, Gin, in 2015. Her father had accidentally stepped on Gin when he was only 8 months old, and the puppy had gradually lost the use of his legs. The vet said Gin was only likely to live another five years, but Wang was determined to do whatever she could to help him.

She massaged Gin every day and looked for a wheelchair to help the dog stay active. The first one she bought was far too big and heavy for Gin, who weighs only 2.5 kilograms, but Gao’s work was an instant hit. Four years on from the accident, Gin still goes out for walkies at least twice per day.

Gin enjoys some walkies on a wheelchair in Shanghai, Oct. 23, 2019. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Gin enjoys some walkies on a wheelchair in Shanghai, Oct. 23, 2019. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

“With the wheels, he can walk much faster than before,” says Wang. “And he always sticks his tongue out, which shows he’s happy.”

According to Wang, at least a dozen people have asked her where they could buy a similar wheelchair while she’s been out walking Gin over the years. “One of our neighbors ordered a wheelchair for his old golden retriever so that he could enjoy the outdoors,” says Wang. “The dog passed away a few months later, but it’s all worth it.”

As Gao’s fame has spread, the factory in Huludao has found itself receiving an ever-greater variety of orders. The business now produces around 1,000 wheelchairs for export each month, according to Gao. He says 90% of his wheelchairs are for dogs, while 9% are for cats. The remaining 1% are made for a range of animals, including rabbits, tortoises, and pigs. The company has also created wheelchairs for horses at a Chinese zoo, as well as goats on an overseas ranch, he adds.

A GIF shows a cat walking with a wheelchair made by Gao Xiaodong. Courtesy of Gao Xiaodong

A GIF shows a cat walking with a wheelchair made by Gao Xiaodong. Courtesy of Gao Xiaodong

“We’re so happy to see a growing number of Chinese pet owners willing to help their disabled or elderly dogs enjoy a new life,” says Gao. “Dogs can usually adapt to wheelchairs very quickly.”

Sadly, some dogs pass away before their new mobility aids can be delivered. “Our customers will still pay for the wheelchair,” says Gao. “They often bury it with their beloved dogs, hoping they can run free in another world.”

Gao’s next project is to start making pet houses, tapping into Chinese owners’ desire to pamper their pooches. There still appears to be enormous room for growth in the pet market, with U.S. pet food giant Mars predicting it could more than double in size within the next five years.

Mainly, though, Gao just wants to make sure the country’s animals are as comfortable as possible, he says. “We were all born equal,” says Gao. “Animals, whether they can walk or not, all deserve to be respected.”


This article was published on Sixth Tone.

China’s Newest Cram School Craze: Sex Ed Camps


SHANDONG, East China — “What are the differences between men’s and women’s bodies?” asks Jiang Lingling. The 11 young children huddled around her look thoughtful for a moment. “Girls’ chests are bigger than boys’,” says one boy. “But Captain America’s chest is also big,” counters another.

At the back of the room, the children’s parents start to giggle. But Jiang isn’t fazed. She’s used to this kind of reaction. “This is a desensitization process,” she tells Sixth Tone.

The 38-year-old is one of a small group of specialists bringing a new, franker style of sex education to families across China who are tired of the conservative approach taken by most Chinese schools.

Though the State Council, China’s Cabinet, made sexual and reproductive health education compulsory in all schools in 2011, the subject remains poorly taught. Lessons still often focus on preaching abstinence rather than providing practical information about contraception, and this has left shocking numbers of young adults clueless about how to stop unwanted pregnancies.

Many parents are turning to extracurricular cram schools to give their kids a more thorough grounding in the facts of life, and this is opening the door for lecturers like Jiang who advocate a radically different approach. Last year, the national government began issuing certifications to sex education lecturers, and it has already issued more than 330 licenses.

Jiang is in Qingdao, eastern Shandong province’s coastal city of 9 million people, to teach a three-day course in empowerment sex education — a curriculum developed by the renowned Chinese sexologist Fang Gang in 2013. The approach is based on Fang’s belief that teaching children as much as possible about their bodies from a young age — the younger, the better — not only benefits their physical safety, but also their mental health.

“It empowers children to know, understand, judge, choose, and learn to be responsible,” Fang tells Sixth Tone.

The event, held at a local hotel in early August, is Qingdao’s first-ever empowerment sex ed camp. Until this year, Fang only organized courses in relatively liberal metropolises like Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou, but now he’s starting to spread the gospel across the country. He expects to hold camps in 20 different provinces and regions in 2019.

The Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou summer camps sold out in just a few days, but sales in Qingdao have been slower. Eleven children aged between 7 and 11 have arrived with their parents — just over half the maximum 20 spots. Jiang says demand is sure to pick up in the future.

“People from provinces like Shandong are still relatively conservative,” says Jiang. “But the parents who attend are open-minded and understand the importance of such education for young children.”

Sex education lecturers Wang Yi (left) and Jiang Lingling (right) show children male and female organs on dolls during a sex education summer camp in Qingdao, Shandong province, Aug. 2, 2019. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Sex education lecturers Wang Yi (left) and Jiang Lingling (right) show children male and female organs on dolls during a sex education summer camp in Qingdao, Shandong province, Aug. 2, 2019. Fan Yiying

One of those parents is Wang Yanhua, who has spent more than 5,000 yuan ($700) on accommodation, food, and the booking fee to travel over 300 kilometers from her hometown Weihai and make sure her 9-year-old son Luoyuan could attend. She says it was worth it.

“It’s not cheap for anyone,” says Wang. “But the real problem is, even if you have money, it’s so rare to find good sex education opportunities like this.”

The 43-year-old tried to convince her friends to also bring their kids, but they told her they did not consider sex education that important. This is especially true of parents with young boys, according to Wang. “Some parents of sons think that boys don’t lose anything if they get a girl pregnant, or that sexual assault doesn’t happen to boys,” she says.

For many of the parents, the camp is a learning opportunity for them as well as their children. Several confess being unsure of how to respond to sex-related questions, though they dislike the traditional Chinese dodge of telling their children that they were found in a dustbin.

Luoyuan first asked where he came from at 5 years old. Wang told him: “Mom has a seed, Dad has a seed, and the two seeds grow together in Mom’s belly.” But now he is growing evermore curious and confused. “So, I told him there’s a summer camp in Qingdao where you can learn all about it,” says Wang.

Jiang starts the first day of activities by playing a set of cartoons showing how a couple falls in love and gives birth to a baby. When the pictures of male and female sexual organs appear on the screen, the children begin to laugh. But Jiang insists they treat them matter-of-factly.

“This is called a penis, not a wee-wee,” she tells the children, none of whom have ever heard the word before. “This is a vagina.” Jiang does not use any nicknames or pronouns. “The idea we want to convey is that every organ is equal and noble,” she says.

Within 15 minutes, the children are able to say the names of the body parts naturally, without laughter or awkwardness. This is easiest with young children, Jiang says. “That is why we emphasize the importance of early sex education,” she adds.

A girl in the sex education summer camp experiments with “blood” on a pad in Qingdao, Shandong province, Aug. 4, 2019. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

A girl in the sex education summer camp experiments with “blood” on a pad in Qingdao, Shandong province, Aug. 4, 2019. Fan Yiying

After the knowing your body course, parents are most keen for their children to experience the lesson on preventing sexual assault. The number of reported cases of sexual assault against children has risen in China, from 2,962 recorded cases in 2017 to 3,567 last year. While much of this increase can be attributed to growing awareness of child protection issues and timelier reporting of cases, parents are still concerned.

Jiang asks the children to draw small figures on a piece of paper, then mark up the body with colored pencils — green for where it’s OK for others to touch, red for where they don’t want to be touched, and yellow for where they’re not sure. Then, she invites them to show their cards. They accurately use the words “breasts,” “buttocks,” and “penis” — which they have just learned — to describe their drawings. “If the child can accurately use these terms, it could greatly help a police investigation,” says Jiang.

But as the first day comes to a close, some parents express concern that their children will be mocked by their peers for using formal terms like “penis” rather than “wee-wee.” “You need to know that what your children have learned today is the most accurate and scientific knowledge, and you — the parents — should be proud of that,” Jiang tells them. “If they are teased because of that, then that is due to others’ ignorance.”
The parents are also forced to grapple with their own views during the second day of classes, which focuses on sexuality and gender issues.

After learning about the effects of gender stereotypes, Wang feels guilty about making her son play with toy cars and water pistols rather than buying him the Barbie doll he has always wanted.

“I was so worried that he might be gay or transgender,” says Wang. “But now I understand that hobbies and good traits have nothing to do with gender or sexuality.” During the break between classes, Wang apologizes to Luoyuan, who looks surprised. “It’s OK, Mom,” he says quickly, before rushing back to his seat.

The lecture about gender stereotypes also makes an impression on 10-year-old Yaya. Her father Wang Tong — no relation to Wang Yanhua — often says that her grandparents describe her as a tomboy when she misbehaves. “Dad, I thought I was doing something wrong, but now I know boys and girls are equal,” Yaya whispers to Wang Tong, the only father attending the event.

As a pediatrician, Wang Tong, 38, understands the importance of sex education. “It’s easier to cure physical diseases; mental illnesses are difficult to cure, as they’re largely impacted by the family and a lack of sex education,” he tells Sixth Tone after the entire camp is done. He says he can do a better job of teaching Yaya about physiology and reproduction but believes it’s better to have professional experts teach her about these psychosocial issues.

Yaya has not received any sex education at school, according to Wang Tong. “Many parents can’t accept it, and schools don’t want to get in trouble,” he says. In 2017, when a school in the eastern city of Hangzhou tried to introduce a more detailed sex education curriculum, it faced backlash from some parents arguing that second grade was too young to learn about intercourse, gender equality, and sexual orientation.

Sex education lecturer Wang Yi shows children how to use a tampon on a doll during a sex education summer camp in Qingdao, Shandong province, Aug. 4, 2019. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Sex education lecturer Wang Yi shows children how to use a tampon on a doll during a sex education summer camp in Qingdao, Shandong province, Aug. 4, 2019. Fan Yiying

On the last day of the summer camp, Wang Yi — who runs the event alongside Jiang and has no relation to Wang Yanhua or Wang Tong — shows all the children how to use cups, sanitary pads, and tampons on a doll. She then hands out disposable underwear and pads for the children to practice on their own.

“For girls, having their first period is something we should celebrate,” says Wang Yi. “For boys, the earlier they know about how pads work, the better they’ll learn to respect women. It’s an education in responsible intimacy.”

Since 2008, Chinese law has stated that fifth and sixth graders should learn about menstruation and wet dreams, but the children in Qingdao have received no education about this. They fall over each other to ask questions. “What color is sperm?” “Do we need a pad for the sperm?” “Would a tampon grow as big as a penis that might hurt the vagina?”

The parents look at each other, slack-jawed. Wang Yi suggests that fathers and mothers share their experiences with their children. “I always avoided answering when Luoyuan asked me about pads,” Wang Yanhua says. “But now I feel more comfortable talking about it with him.”

When asked how his family has been influenced by the summer camp, Wang Tong says it’s hard to say how much Yaya could learn in just three days, but he is sure she has learned some valuable principles. “It’s more important for the parents to accept these principles and apply them in daily life,” he says. “The lecturers only plant seeds; whether they grow depends on us.”


This article was published on Sixth Tone. 

Royal Canin Wants Shanghai To Be China’s Most Pet-Friendly City


SHANGHAI — French pet food company Royal Canin will partner with the Shanghai Municipal Public Security Bureau, as well as local pet industry associations, veterinary clinics, and social organizations, to provide a comprehensive solution to the city’s rescue programs for stray cats and dogs, Cai Xiaodong, the general manager of Royal Canin China, said at a press conference Wednesday during the five-day Pet Fair Asia.

Under the new initiative, Royal Canin will cooperate with the public security bureau to capture and provide shelter for homeless animals, as well as send them to 14 pet hospitals for vaccination and desexing, and to local nongovernmental organizations to be put up for adoption.

Moreover, Royal Canin aims to promote more harmonious human-pet relationships in Shanghai, its China headquarters, by 2025. “We want to make Shanghai a pet-friendly city as a national benchmark,” said Cai. “Our new vision is that dogs will be able to go to public places like parks and offices without a hitch.”

To achieve this goal, Royal Canin and its partners will host lectures and summer and winter camps to share expert guidance on pet rescue and adoption with children and young people, to lay a foundation for broader public education in the long term.

Royal Canin’s booth at Pet Fair Asia in Shanghai, Aug. 22, 2019. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Royal Canin’s booth at Pet Fair Asia in Shanghai, Aug. 22, 2019. Fan Yiying

There are around 100 million pet dogs and cats in China, according to a white paperon the country’s pet industry published last week. But the problems of abandonment and unchecked reproduction have led to growing populations of strays, which in turn have put pressure on the social environment. “Although Chinese people are now more willing to participate in animal rescue, the knowledge and norms for doing so, and for immunization and sterilization, remain backward,” Niu Guangbin, a veterinarian at the Shanghai animal disease control and prevention center, told Sixth Tone.

Every neighborhood in Shanghai has stray cats, Niu said. “This is partially because people are constantly feeding them out of love,” he explained. But this doesn’t solve the problem of homeless animals. “The best way is to rescue them for sterilization,” he said, “and then release them or put them up for adoption so that they can live with dignity.”

Shanghai’s public security bureau accepts nearly 12,000 stray animals each year, which are dispatched to social organizations and around 1,000 veterinarians in the city for treatment and adoption, according to Yang Qiqing, director of the Shanghai Pet Trade Association. “Animals and humans should have the same rights,” he told Sixth Tone. “To care about the health of animals is to care about our own health.”

To make Shanghai a better place for pets, Kai Ling, brand marketing director for Ta Shanghai — a pet adoption platform that incorporates a Chinese character meaning “he,” “she,” or “it” into its name — says it’s crucial to correct a few common misconceptions. In cooperation with select celebrities, Ta Shanghai organizes around 10 pet adoption events each month, mainly at shopping malls throughout the city. But oftentimes Chinese parents — especially mothers — will veto potential adoptions out of concern for their children’s safety. “We always educate the parents, explaining that animals are not as scary as they might think,” Kai told Sixth Tone. “I draw from my own experience to tell other mothers how much my son has benefited from growing up with three disabled cats in the family.”

Meanwhile, another adoption organization, Beijing Pet Adoption Day, has helped nearly 10,000 rescued dogs and cats find new homes in 24 Chinese cities over the past eight years. Since 2017, it has crowdfunded 10 million yuan ($1.4 million) toward food for over 20,000 strays. Beijing Pet Adoption Day is also building the country’s first stray animal educational center in Beijing, scheduled to open in October.

“When we had just launched the adoption platform on social media, we often received private messages asking whether it was a place to adopt children,” Yang Yang, Beijing Pet Adoption Day’s founder, told Sixth Tone. “Chinese people once considered strays dirty, unhealthy, and unsuitable for families — but now, many have gradually embraced the notion that adopting rather than buying pets is a life attitude, and a meaningful one at that.”


This article was published on Sixth Tone.

China’s First Commercially Cloned Cat Unveiled in Beijing


A Chinese biotech company aiming to cash in on people’s desires to duplicate their beloved pets has successfully cloned the nation’s first house cat, according to an announcement delivered at a press conference Monday afternoon.

The cloned cat — named Dasuan, or Garlic in English — is a British shorthair born naturally on July 21, 66 days after a successful embryo transfer. The company behind the procedure, Sinogene, began researching cat cloning last August. According to the Beijing-based biotech firm, the surrogate mother — who is not the same breed as the cloned offspring — is behaving “maternal enough,” and the kitten is in good health.

Garlic’s owner, Huang Yu, says he read about Sinogene in the news late last year. When his 2-year-old cat, the original Garlic, died from a urinary tract infection in January, he brought the animal’s body to a pet hospital in Wenzhou, a city in eastern China’s Zhejiang province. Veterinarians there were able to extract cells from the deceased animal to be sent to Sinogene in Beijing. After months of waiting, Huang finally got to meet the new Garlic on Monday, and became the country’s first owner of a cloned cat.

“I felt guilty for delaying treatment,” Huang told Sixth Tone, referring to the old Garlic’s dire medical situation. “Having him cloned makes up for my regret and gives me another chance to love him.”

Though the number of cats in China’s pet industry and the rate of cat ownership remain less than those of dogs, the “cat economy” has been steadily growing. According to a Chinese pet industry white paper released Thursday, the size of the domestic pet market is expected to reach 202 billion yuan ($28.6 billion) this year, up from 171 billion yuan in 2018. The domestic cat market is projected to reach 78 billion yuan in 2019, up 19.6% year over year — a growth rate that’s outpacing the domestic dog market. While there are still 55 million pet dogs in China compared with 44 million pet cats, ownership of the latter is also growing at a faster rate.

Sinogene cloned its first dog — Longlong, or Dragon — for medical research in May 2017 before offering the service commercially the following year. The company says it hopes to be cloning 500 dogs per year in the near future. “We decided to get into the cat business after witnessing the rising popularity (of cats) among China’s younger generations,” Zhao Jianping, Sinogene’s deputy general manager, told Sixth Tone during an interview last month.

Sinogene charges 380,000 yuan to clone a dog and 250,000 yuan to clone a cat. The company currently cooperates with some 600 domestic veterinary clinics to promote its pet cloning business.

The world’s first cloned cat — dubbed CC for Copy Cat or Carbon Copy — was born at Texas A&M University in December 2001, several years before the world’s first cloned dog, Snuppy, was born in South Korea in 2005. The Texas A&M researchers went through 82 embryos before they were able to get a surrogate mother pregnant with a single kitten. Though CC was a clone, she reportedly grew up with a slightly different look and personality from her genetic mother.

Despite his excitement leading up to Monday’s press event, Huang confessed to Sixth Tone that he was a bit disappointed when he finally saw the new Garlic for the first time. “The basic pattern of his coat is the same, but the distinctive patch of black fur on his chin is gone,” he lamented.

Shanghai resident Feng Tanyu is the proud owner of a 7-year-old purebred ragdoll. “He has a multifaceted personality just like lots of other cats,” Feng, 32, told Sixth Tone. As a cat owner, Feng says he understands the premise behind cloning. “If an owner can’t get over the pain of losing their beloved cat, I think a clone might be a good idea to help them during the grieving process,” he said.

But another cat lover, Zhang Yuan, doesn’t see how a cloned cat could be an adequate substitute. “Dogs and cats are different: Dogs can live happily alongside most humans, while cats are picky and follow their feelings about whether to like people,” the Shanghai native told Sixth Tone. “Having the same appearance but a different personality and temperament will only lead to disappointment and more pain in the long run.”

Regardless of what the future holds for Huang and his new fur baby, he says he can’t wait to take Garlic home in October. “If the technology for cat cloning hadn’t been developed in time,” he said, “I probably would have lost Garlic for good — and then I’d have to live with regret for the rest of my life.”


This article was published on Sixth Tone.

China’s Copy Paste Pups


SHANGHAI — When her beloved dog Nini turned 10, Zhang Yueyan became concerned. How many years would she have left with her companion?

The news that Hollywood star Barbra Streisand had her pet cloned brought comfort; by the time Nini was on her last leg of life, Zhang could do the same. The only thing holding her back was that the cheapest option, a South Korean company, charged $100,000. But last year, a biotech company in Beijing, Sinogene, entered the market at about half the price. “Ever since, I didn’t fear her death anymore,” Zhang, 32, tells Sixth Tone.

Zhang has become one of just a few dozen Sinogene customers so far. But the company sees great growth potential in China’s market. The country’s dog owners spent 106 billion yuan ($16.5 billion) on their estimated 50 million pets in 2018, a 20.5% year-over-year increase, and have spawned such lavish amenities as pet hotelsand pet funerals. From 20 cloned dogs in 2018 and 20 more orders in the first quarter of 2019, Sinogene hopes to grow to duplicate 500 dogs annually within five years, serving Chinese and foreign customers. The company also clones horses and is developing more “biotherapy” products for pets.

After her beloved dog Nini passed away, Zhang Yueyan spent 380,000 yuan ($54,000) to create a clone. By Zhao Yinyin, Zhu Yuqing, and Cong Yan

Twenty-three years after Dolly the sheep, animal cloning is no longer necessarily cutting-edge technology, however Sinogene’s duplicate dogs are part of China’s fast-developing world of genetic research. In recent years, Chinese researchers have successfully cloned two monkeys, produced healthy mice from two female parents, and cloned a gene-edited dog — the latter also done by Sinogene.

The Chinese government is supportive, with its latest five-year plan calling foraccelerated research into DNA testing and therapy. But lagging regulation has left large ethical blind spots, such as when, late last year, a Chinese researcher caused a storm with his announcement of the first gene-edited human babies. In June, new rules restricted the collection and use of human DNA in China, but cloning dogs and other animals remains unregulated — as it does in other countries — despite considerable moral issues.

But for Sinogene’s customers, love for their pups trumps any concerns. “Nowadays people treat their dog as a family member who is their spiritual sustenance or companionship,” says Zhao Jianping, the company’s deputy general manager. “When they lose their pets, they want their (pets’) lives to continue.”

The first step of cloning a dog is taking a DNA sample of the parent animal. Last August, when Zhang’s 19-year-old Nini fell seriously ill, Sinogene sent vets to collect a tissue sample from the dog’s rear leg. “It was a minor procedure. She didn’t even bleed,” Zhang recalls. Using the sample, Sinogene produced and stored identical cells that, after Nini passed away in October, the company could use for another Nini.

But the rest of the process involves many more dogs than just the old and new Ninis. Sinogene maintains a breeding base on the outskirts of Beijing with some 1,000 beagles — the international lab dog of choice. According to Zhao, Sinogene collects immature egg cells from three to five of these lab dogs, and then combines them with the parent dog’s cells to form embryos. One embryo is then implanted into a surrogate mother, who will successfully get pregnant 50% of the time. In case of failure, this monthslong process is repeated with another surrogate mother. On average, it takes half a year for a cloned puppy to be born, and they are then delivered to their owners after two months.

A technician does a cloning-related experiment at Sinogene’s lab in Beijing, July 2, 2019. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

A technician does a cloning-related experiment at Sinogene’s lab in Beijing, July 2, 2019. Fan Yiying

During Sixth Tone’s visit to Sinogene in early July, six surrogate beagle mothers and their eight cloned newborns were resting in the nursing room, each mother and their one to three puppies in their own 1-square-meter cubicle with water, food, and toys. Staff keep a close eye on the moms and pups. Twice a day, the mothers get to run around outside. Sixth Tone could not visit the breeding base, but Zhao says conditions there are “as humane as possible” and include two meals and up to three hours of playtime a day.

Zhao defends the use of lab dogs, saying “it’s the beagle’s mission to cooperate with experiments.” He adds: “Surrogacy is a very small trauma to dogs, which is similar to sterilization.” To surrogate, the animal will have a small wound in their abdomen, and then the cloned embryo will be transferred directly to the fallopian tube without any damage to other tissue. The abdominal wound usually recovers within a week. Every dog is used as a surrogate twice, usually between the ages of 2 and 5, and then put up for adoption, Zhao says. Already some 200 beagles have found new homes. A majority of customers choose to adopt the surrogate mother of their cloned puppy.

In any case, dog cloning now requires significantly fewer dogs compared with when the technology was first successfully attempted in 2005. Then, South Korean company Sooam Biotech reportedly implanted 1,000 embryos into 123 surrogate dogs to produce the world’s first cloned dog, Snuppy.

In December, Nini’s clone was born, and in February, on Zhang’s birthday, Sinogene’s crew delivered the 2-month-old to her new home in Shanghai. “It was the best birthday ever,” says Zhang, petting her new pal on her lap. She’s decided to also call her Nini. “I only want one dog in my life,” she says. Initially, there were some doubts on whether the new Nini would age to look like the original, but after some months of growth and a haircut, the resemblance is striking, says Zhang. “They even sound the same and have the same twisted joint in their tails.”

At Shanghai Companion Animal Hospital, Dr. Yang Qiqing, who’s a veterinary specialist, tells Sixth Tone that clients have been inquiring about pet cloning since last year. “Some pet owners’ feelings for their pets may be beyond the imagination of non-pet owners and vets,” he says. Yang considers cloning unnatural. “It can only restore the appearance, but it can’t restore the personality, memory, or emotion,” he adds. Sinogene’s Zhao says that clones will look like the parent dog and have the same general health, but that differences in how they are raised may cause their behavior to be different.

Yang says the surrogate dogs used for cloning may suffer some psychological pain. “It can only be compensated by providing more living space for surrogate dogs and increasing dog-walking time,” he suggests. Despite increased attention to animal welfare, China still lacks a law to protect their rights. “When we do have such laws and regulations, I think we should include provisions for cloning pets,” says Yang.

Despite this lack, there is plenty of interest. In March, China’s first cloned police dog, Kunxun, was born in Sinogene’s lab. She is the genetic copy of Huahuangma, a 7-year-old veteran of the Pu’er City police force, in southwestern China’s Yunnan province, who earned the nickname Sherlock Holmes because she “helped crack dozens of murder cases,” according to newspaper China Daily. The hope is that cloning such top-rate police dogs will reduce training time and costs. “Cloning is the best way to pass on a good individual’s genes,” says Zhao. “If done in batches, the cost will be relatively low, and the quantity can increase rapidly.”

Hu Bao, a 31-year-old advertising manager in Shanghai, has decided to clone his dog. Tuoba, 3, is a rare mix of poodle and bichon, and Hu is concerned he might not be able to find another one. “She has a perfect size, she’s smart, she’s quiet at home, she doesn’t shed, and she doesn’t smell,” he says.

Hu pays close attention to developments in biotechnology and has read about Sinogene. He’s decided to clone Tuoba in 7 years’ time, when she’s 10. “I look at cloning from a rational perspective,” he says. “I’m aware that the cloned dog won’t be the same, but I know I will want dogs like Tuoba to accompany me for the rest of my life.” He adds: “If I had another dog, I’m not sure if they would be functionally as perfect as Tuoba.”

Hu Bao shakes hands with his pet dog in Shanghai, May 7, 2019. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Hu Bao shakes hands with his pet dog in Shanghai, May 7, 2019. Fan Yiying

For now, Hu’s priority is saving up. Sinogene currently charges 380,000 yuan for a cloned dog, but Zhao says the price could come down in the future. “If the market is large enough, and our efficiency is relatively stable, then the price has room for adjustment.”

Back in Zhang’s apartment, three of her neighbors drop in to play with the new Nini. They joke that they have to be gentle and careful since she has cost a fortune. Zhang acknowledges that the new Nini won’t replace the old one, but the cloned puppy is helping her with the grieving process. “Now every time I flash back to the things I did with the old Nini, I carry the new Nini in my arms. I look at her and talk to her as if Nini is still here.”

Additional reporting: Ai Jiabao; editor: Kevin Schoenmakers.


This article was published on Sixth Tone.