GUADALIX DE LA SIERRA, Spain — Alcalde, a hulking black bull, is quite the stud. He sires up to 40 calves a year, most of them top-grade fighters, even though in human terms he would be almost 80 years old and is nearing the end of his life.
Victoriano del Rio, a fifth-generation breeder of fighting bulls, cringes at the thought of losing an animal with such good genes. So he is going to clone him.
"I am extremely fond of this bull," del Rio said at his ranch in this town outside Madrid, watching 16-year-old Alcalde graze with some of his latest offspring.
While a bull in its prime can sire as many as 80 calves a year, Alcalde's record is "exceptional" for an animal of his advanced age, del Rio said.
The Spaniard is not alone in the adventure. Rancher Jose Manuel Fernandez in Mexico City plans to replicate Zalamero, another aging bull that achieved the rare feat of dodging death in the ring: In 1994, Zalamero put up such a relentless fight one autumn day that judges spared his life. Since then he has been a valuable stud.
While Alcalde never fought in the ring, he has proved to be a producer of champions.
Fernandez envisions a future in which an afternoon at the arena — usually three matadors taking on two bulls each — might involve six genetically identical animals created from the same beast.
If all goes as planned, Zalamero II — or several of them, because Fernandez is trying for four or five — will be born in November or December. Alcalde's clone would be born in May or June of 2009.
Both breeders have hired ViaGen, a cloning company in Austin, Texas, to do the job. The technique is essentially the same one used in 1996 to copy the sheep Dolly, the world's first cloned mammal.
It involves inserting the nucleus of a somatic cell from the bull — any cell that is not a sperm cell — into a cow egg cell that has been stripped of its nucleus. The egg undergoes electrical and chemical stimulation to make it divide and grow into an embryo. This is then implanted in a surrogate cow to be carried to term.
ViaGen spokesman Ben Carlson confirmed the orders from del Rio and Fernandez, but would not comment on pregnancies or due dates. Carlson said the breeders would pay standard cattle cloning prices: $17,500 for the first calf, $15,000 for the second, $12,500 for the third and $10,000 for the fourth and beyond.
ViaGen has cloned about 300 mammals — including show pigs, rodeo horses and bucking broncos — since its founding in 2002. But this is the world's first attempt at cloning the breed that takes on matadors in the deadly minuet of bullfighting, the breeders said.
But questions abound. It's one thing to pass on a carbon copy of a fighting or stud bull's DNA, and quite another to expect the new animal to mimic the original.
Only as much as 40 percent of an animal's behavior is attributable to its genes, said Javier Canon, a geneticist at Madrid's Complutense University.
And there are much cheaper and more effective ways to harvest a great fighting bull's valuable genes, such as using the father's semen for artificial insemination.
"If you ask me about this project from a technical point of view, in terms of genetic progress, it serves no purpose whatsoever," Canon said.