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Lawsuit over quarter horse's clone may redefine animal breeding

Cloning 'is nothing more than an assisted reproductive technique' in animal breeding, Texas lawsuit says

Lynx Melody Too, a clone of a renowned quarter horse, is at the center of a lawsuit that could change the world of animal breeding and competition.

Texas horse breeder Jason Abraham and veterinarian Gregg Veneklasen sued the American Quarter Horse Assn., claiming that Lynx Melody Too should be allowed to register as an official quarter horse.

A Texas jury decided in their favor in 2013, but a three-judge panel of the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed that ruling in January, saying there was "insufficient" evidence of wrongdoing by the association.

Abraham and Veneklasen are now seeking a rehearing before the full 15-judge circuit panel.

The suit is among the first to deal with the status of clones in breeding and competition, and its outcome could impact a number of fields, including thoroughbred horse racing and dog breeding.

The quarter horse association is adamant that clones and their offspring have no place in its registry.

"It's what AQHA was founded on — tracking and preserving the pedigrees of these American quarter horses," said Tom Persechino, executive director of marketing for the association. "When a person buys an American quarter horse, they want to know that my quarter horse has the blood of these horses running through it, not copies of it."

But Abraham and Veneklasen say that cloning follows a long tradition of using the latest technology to improve and maintain the breed.

Cloning "is nothing more than an assisted reproductive technique, similar to in vitro fertilization and artificial insemination," the plaintiffs wrote in their suit. "A clone is simply the genetic twin of the original animal separated in time."

Ever since Dolly the sheep was cloned in 1996 in Scotland, the use of clones as food, resurrected pets or competitive animals has been hotly discussed.

Horses were first cloned in 2003, and various breeding groups have taken different stances. The Jockey Club, which registers thoroughbreds, has banned them from racing. But clones are allowed in other competitions, such as dressage and rodeo.

There is little uniformity among other animal groups. The American Kennel Club has banned clones; the Cat Fanciers' Assn. has no policy yet since no one has tried to register a cloned cat.

Abraham and Veneklasen started a partnership to clone horses, with Abraham providing the surrogate mother mares and Veneklasen in charge of the cloning process.

One of their projects was the cloning of Lynx Melody. Nicknamed "Little Bitty," the horse stood only 13.3 hands, or about 4 1/2 feet. Despite her size, she won the prestigious National Cutting Horse Assn. Futurity competition for 3-year-olds.

Her offspring were successful too — 16 of 17 were substantial money-earners. In 2008, Lynx Melody was posthumously inducted into the American Quarter Horse Hall of Fame.

Abraham and Veneklasen applied to have Lynx Melody Too included in the quarter horse registry, although the association had banned clones since 2004.

The pair, who did not respond to interview requests, sued the association, claiming the group violated federal antitrust laws.

They contend that members of the association's Stud Book and Registration Committee, which reviews and recommends changes to the rules, conspired with the group to keep cloned horses out because of greater competition in both breeding and racing.

The association denies there is any conspiracy or monopoly and says it is in step with other purebred animal registry groups.

Registration rules have always required that "only horses resulting from the breeding of a mother and a father (the joining of an egg and a sperm) are eligible for registration."

"There were a lot of unknowns, in that the technology was so new," Persechino said. "We received overwhelming support to defend the current rules from the membership."

He said the association sees breeding as "part science and part art" and has loosened its rules to allow artificial insemination and embryo transfers.

Persechino said cloning offered little to the craft of horse breeding. "It wasn't going to do anything to expand the breed," he said. "It was just going to go back and copy what was already done."

Several animal breeding groups, including the Arabian Horse Assn., the Cat Fanciers' Assn. and the U.S. Trotting Assn., have filed briefs with the court in support of the quarter horse group.

Katrin Hinrichs, a professor at Texas A&M University whose lab has cloned nine horses and published more on horse cloning than any other lab in the world, said the association's rule was reasonable.

"You don't really know what the effect will be on how people breed horses, on the whole horse industry," she said, noting that clones could have some health issues, such as crooked legs, that weren't present in the original. "I think the AQHA was very prudent."

But health issues eventually seem to work themselves out in the second generation, "kind of like a reset button," Hinrichs said.

She added that she saw a specific role for cloning. "Cloning, to me, is a way to preserve genetics," she said. "If you geld a horse and ... he becomes a champion in the field, you've lost those genes."

She also said cloning could be misunderstood.

"From the first time that man or humankind took a seed from where it would have fallen on the ground below where a plant was and took that seed and planted it instead in another place, that's interfering with God's plan, as it were," she said.

"In cloning, if you look at what we're doing, we're taking a nucleus from one cell, and we're putting it in another cell. We're not fooling around with the DNA, we're not changing the DNA in any way."

samantha.masunaga@latimes.com

Twitter: @smasunaga

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