Bernann McKinney says her beloved pit bull "Booger" saved her life when another dog attacked her, then learned to push her wheelchair while she recovered from a severe hand injury and nerve damage.
He died in 2006, but now he's back - at least in clone form, after the birth last week of puppies replicated by a South Korean company.
"Yes, I know you! You know me too!" McKinney cried joyfully Tuesday, hugging the puppy clones as they slept with one of their two surrogate mothers, both Korean mixed breed dogs, in a Seoul laboratory. "It's a miracle."
The five clones were created by Seoul-based RNL Bio in cooperation with a team of Seoul National University scientists who in 2005 created the world's first cloned dog, a male Afghan hound named Snuppy.
It is headed by Lee Byeong-chun, a former colleague of disgraced scientist Hwang Woo-suk, whose purported breakthroughs in stem cell research were revealed as fake. Independent tests, however, proved the team's dog cloning was genuine.
Lee's team has since cloned some 30 dogs and five wolves, but claims Booger's clones, for which McKinney paid $50,000, are the first successful commercial cloning of a canine.
The procedure, which costs up to $150,000, is drawing criticism from animal rights groups which oppose cloning pets. They say it can lead to malformed offspring and exploitation of surrogates and egg donors, as well as unfounded claims that the new animal is an exact copy of the original.
"It's fraught with animal welfare concerns and it does not bring back a loved one," said Martin Stephens, vice president for animal research issues at The Humane Society of The United States, based in Washington.
"A dead animal's DNA does not guarantee the offspring will be identical to the deceased. It takes more than just genes to create an animal," said Stephens, who is a biologist.
He said the cloning process also subjects hundreds of dogs and cats to invasive procedures as egg donors and surrogates. According to a report released by The Humane Society in May, 3,656 cloned embryos, 319 egg donors and 214 surrogates were used to produce just five cloned dogs and 11 cloned cats who were able to survive 30 days past birth.
There are millions of homeless dogs and cats in the U.S., Stephens said, and "we don't need new sources to compete with animal shelters and reputable breeders."
McKinney, 57, a screenwriter who taught drama at U.S. universities, contacted Lee after her dog died of cancer in April 2006. She had earlier gone to U.S.-based Genetics Savings and Clone but it shut down in late 2006 after only producing a handful of cloned cats and failing to produce any dog clones.
The Korean scientists brought the dog's frozen cells to Seoul in March and nurtured them before launching formal cloning work in late May, according to RNL Bio.
"The cells' status was indeed bad as they had been stored for a long time," Lee told The Associated Press in a phone interview.
"But the scientific technology has also developed compared with when we cloned Snuppy. There is no room for any doubt over whether they are real clones," said Lee, whose team has identified the puppies as Booger's genuine clones. His university's forensic medicine team is currently conducting reconfirmation tests.
Lee said the five clones, which share identical white spots below their necks, were all healthy though their weights vary slightly.
McKinney said she was especially attached to Booger because he saved her from an attack by another dog three times his size. She suffered severe injuries to her left hand and damaged nerves in her leg and stomach, and spent part of her recovery in a wheelchair.
McKinney said Booger acted as more than a canine companion as she recuperated. He pulled her wheelchair when its battery ran out, opened her house door with his teeth and helped her take off her shoes and socks, even though she never trained him to do so.
"I believe that Booger was an angel that God rented out to me for short period of time," she said. "And he knew I would be lost without him, so he sent me some more. He sent me five more mini-Boogers."
She said she has named the clones Booger McKinney, Booger Lee, Booger Ra, Booger Hong and Booger Park, after herself and the South Korean scientists who achieved the cloning.
McKinney said she will take three of the cloned dogs to her home in California, where she lives with five other dogs and three horses. She plans to donate the others to work as service dogs for the handicapped or elderly.
RNL Bio charges up to $150,000 for dog cloning but was paid a third of that by McKinney because she is the first customer and helped with publicity, said company head Ra Jeong-chan.
Ra said his firm eventually aims to clone about 300 dogs per year and is also interested in duplicating camels for customers in the Middle East.