This is how Javier Milei cloned his dog, according to the cloner

The Herald spoke to Ron Gillespie about Conan’s US$50,000 cloning process

When Javier Milei came first in Argentina’s presidential primaries, he dedicated the win to Conan, his English mastiff that died in 2017, and his “four-legged children.” 

The La Libertad Avanza candidate’s pups are named after famous economists, and he mentioned each one in turn in his victory speech — but in a sense, they are all the same dog. Genetically, at least, they are all Conan.

The mastiff was named after Conan, the Barbarian. While the dog was alive, Milei did everything for him: when he had no money, he sold a motorbike and lived on just one pizza a day so he could afford Conan’s high-end dog food. 

When Conan died, Milei acted fast and contacted PerPETuate, one of the first companies specialized in pet cloning. PerPETuate is based in Massachusetts and run by Ron Gillespie, a former cattle semen salesman with a degree in agricultural economics from the University of California Davis. 

“I still have Conan’s genetic material,” Gillespie told the Herald in a phone interview. “Milei pays yearly to store it in my company.” Milei pays US$100 per year for the cryopreservation of more genetic copies. If he wanted more Conan clones, he could.

Cloning Conan cost twice his current dollar savings.

“Conan provided Milei with the most comfort and was somebody of trust, like family,” Gillespie said, recalling one of the emails Milei sent. 

Milei has described his connection with Conan as unearthly, claiming in private circles that they’ve met in previous lives and share a strong bond. And if that link is not as strong as he imagines, he still has the dog’s clones. Apparently, they’re a scientific miracle.

Cloning a dog

It’s harder to clone dogs than other pets, according to Gillespie. It depends largely on how many eggs can be retrieved from female dogs, and they only have two menstrual cycles per year. The process costs around US$50,000, no matter how many puppies are born.

For Conan, the process was no different. “When Conan died, Milei contacted us via e-mail, and we gave him instructions on how to collect the cells and send them to us via FedEx, how to do the paperwork for the tissues to go through customs, and how to keep it cold,” said PerPETuate’s owner.

Once the sample arrived, the hard science began.

Gillespie personally reduces the tissues to enzymes in order to separate a specific type of cell called a fibroblast. These need to be fed with proteins to grow a cell line that will enable clone production. After the egg is fertilized, it’s implanted into a female dog from the kennel to grow naturally in the womb.

PerPETuate specializes in cell line production and storage. It then outsources the production of clones to ViaGen Pets.

Once the cell production process was done, Gillespie chose a female laboratory dog to carry the embryos. He needed a breed large enough to have English mastiff puppies. According to Gillespie, the procedure normally creates up to three cloned embryos, of which one or two will survive through birth. “Conan’s case is different: the female dog gave birth to six puppies,” he said.

After the puppies were born, there was one more step: confirming the clones were a perfect genetic match with Conan. The company took a sample of their saliva to run a genetic marker test, which costs another US$50.

PerPETuate specializes in cell line production and storage, outsourcing the analysis of genetic material to the UC Davis Genetics Lab. There, the saliva samples were checked against the stored reference sample for 27 specific genes. Every result came back as a perfect match with Milei’s beloved original specimen.

Once that was done, the dogs were sent to their owner in a special shipment to go through customs. Gillespie confirmed that one of the puppies died and the rest were shipped to Argentina to meet Milei — or, as he calls himself, the grandad. The puppies arrived in Argentina in March 2018, sources told Milei’s biographer. The candidate only shows four of them in public, so it’s not clear what happened to the other dog.

The cost of a clone

Besides the financial cost, cloning a dog brings other issues to the table. 

“It’s not ethical to clone them because it implies commodifying them as fetishes,” said Dr. Fabiola Leyton, a lecturer at the University of Barcelona with a PhD in moral philosophy. “They are attributed an emotional and instrumental value to humans, which is put before their value as unique beings.”

Bioethicists accept that non-human animals are feeling, unique, complex beings with a right to a non-manipulated identity, including at genetic level, Leyton explained. She argued that pet owners should understand this, and cautioned against treating animals as “objects of infatuation.”

Gillespie, however, is optimistic about this technology. He believes that, combined with gene editing, it could fix health problems such as hip pain in dogs. “[It could] provide us with superior dogs,” he said.

Leyton argues that using gene editing to fix a problem caused by genetic inbreeding is a paradox, although she agrees that it’s better to minimize pain where possible. 

“If you respect non-human individuality, don’t clone them,” she said. 

“Don’t be part of a business made to objectify [animals] that makes pointless promises, because a clone is never the same as the original.”


All Right Reserved.  Buenos Aires Herald