The first cloned-to-order pet sold in the United States is named Little Nicky, a 9-week-old kitten delivered to a Texas woman saddened by the loss of a cat she had owned for 17...

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SAN FRANCISCO — The first cloned-to-order pet sold in the United States is named Little Nicky, a 9-week-old kitten delivered to a Texas woman saddened by the loss of a cat she had owned for 17 years.

The Maine Coon kitten cost its owner $50,000 and was cloned from a beloved cat, named Nicky, that died last year. Nicky’s owner banked the cat’s DNA, which was used to create the clone.

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“He is identical. His personality is the same,” said the woman, named Julie. She asked to be identified by her first name only, because she said she fears being targeted by groups opposed to cloning.

“When Little Nicky yawned, I even saw two spots inside his mouth, just like Nicky had,” Julie said. “Little Nicky loves water like Nicky did, and he’s already jumped into the bathtub like Nicky used to do.”

Yet while Little Nicky, who was delivered two weeks ago, frolics in his new home, the kitten’s creation and sale have reignited fierce ethical and scientific debate over cloning technology, which is rapidly advancing.

The company that created Little Nicky is Sausalito, Calif.-based Genetic Savings & Clone.

Despite its whimsical name, the company has been working for more than four years on the cat cloning process. The founder of the company, Arizona billionaire John Sperling, funded the research at Texas A&M University that led to the cloning of the first cat in 2001, CC, or Carbon Copy.

The company hopes by May to have produced the world’s first cloned dog, which it believes will be a much more lucrative market than cats.

Commercial interests already are cloning prized cattle for about $20,000 each, and scientists have cloned mice, rabbits, goats, pigs, horses — and even the endangered banteng, a wild bull that is found mostly in Indonesia.

Several research teams around the world, meanwhile, are racing to create the first cloned monkey.

Aside from human cloning, which has been achieved only at the microscopic embryo stage, no cloning project has fueled more debate than the marketing plans of Genetic Savings & Clone.

“It’s morally problematic and a little reprehensible,” said David Magnus, co-director of the Center for Biomedical Ethics at Stanford University. “For $50,000, she could have provided homes for a lot of strays.”

Animals-rights activists complain that new feline production systems aren’t needed because thousands of stray cats are euthanized each year for want of homes.

TONY GUTIERREZ / AP

Little Nicky, a cloned Maine Coon kitten, cost his owner, Julie, $50,000 and was cloned from her beloved cat, Nicky, who died last year. Julie banked the cat’s DNA, which was used to create the clone.

Lou Hawthorne, Genetic Savings & Clone’s chief executive, said his company purchases thousands of ovaries from spay clinics across the country. It extracts the eggs, which are combined with the genetic material from the animals to be cloned.

Critics also complain that the technology is available only to the wealthy, that using it to create house pets is frivolous and that customers grieving over lost pets have unrealistic expectations of what they’re buying.

In fact, the first cat cloned in 2001 had a different coat from its genetic donor, underscoring that environment and other biological variables make it impossible to exactly duplicate animals.

“The thing that many people do not realize is that the cloned cat is not the same as the original,” said Bonnie Beaver, a Texas A&M animal behaviorist who heads the American Veterinary Medical Association, which has no position on the issue. “It has a different personality. It has different life experiences. They want Fluffy, but it’s not Fluffy.”

Genetic Savings & Clone spokesman Ben Carlson said clients are cautioned about the pitfalls of cloning pets.

“A lot of people have misconceptions about cloning,” he said. “We make sure our clients understand that we can’t give them their old pet back.”

Carlson likens clones to twins, telling clients that the animals should be similar but not necessarily identical.

Scientists also warn that cloned animals suffer from more health problems than their traditionally bred peers and that cloning is still a very inexact science. It takes many failures to produce just a single clone.

Genetic Savings & Clone said its new technique, developed by animal-cloning pioneer James Robl, has improved survival rates, health and appearance. The new technique seeks to condense and transfer only the donor’s genetic material to a surrogate’s egg, instead of an entire cell nucleus.

Between 15 percent and 45 percent of cloned cats born alive die within the first 30 days, Hawthorne said. But he said that range is consistent with natural births, depending on the breed of cat.

Austin, Texas-based ViaGen, which has cloned hundreds of cows, pigs and goats, also is experimenting with the new cloning technique.

“The jury is still out, but the research shows it to be promising,” company President Sara Davis said. “The technology is improving all the time.”

Genetic Savings & Clone has been behind the creation of at least five cats since 2001, including the first one created.

It hopes to deliver as many as five more clones to customers who have paid the company’s $50,000 fee. By the end of next year, it hopes to have cloned as many as 50 cats.

The company has yet to turn a profit.

Material from The Dallas Morning News and the Los Angeles Times is included in this report.