When most people think of rats, they picture the stereotypical New York City sewer version; giant rodents with red eyes that creep around at night. Even in Africa, rats have always been looked down upon as a nuisance, an infestation, and the last resort when there’s nothing else to eat for dinner. But a Belgian non-government organization is out to change that whole mentality. APOPO () researches, develops, and uses detection rat technology to save lives in any way they possibly can. The two biggest of these movements are for mine and Tuberculosis detection. The founder of the organization, Bart Weetjens, had rats as childhood pets when he was growing up in Belgium, and in 1998 he registered APOPO as a non-profit organization. The company trains what the public fondly calls, “HeroRats”, though their proper name is the Mine Detection Rats (MDRs).
Weetjens first brought the rats to Mozambique in 2006 and naturally, the government officials weren’t sure what to think. “In Mozambique we eat rats,” joked Alberto Augusto, the director of Mozambique’s national demining institute, “so it was very strange to see them working and demining. We were thinking to grill them” (BBC.com).The visual of the rats is even more shocking; they’re actually much larger than those stereotypical NYC sewer rats that everyone is afraid of. But the country needed help; out of 78 countries that are scattered with landmines, Mozambique is one of the highest risk areas. Between the years of 1964 and 1975, tens of thousands of landmines were planted during the civil war, and most have remained dormant over the years. Since 2006 when the rats began their work there, though, they’ve certainly made a dent in that number and proven their worth. They’ve discovered more than 2,406 landmines, 992 bombs, and 13,025 small arms and ammunition from Mozambique’s countryside; all of that falling across 6 million square meters of land. The company believes that they can clear Mozambique of all the mines in less than 20 years. Before the use of the rats, that would just be unrealistic.
Though hundreds of millions of dollars have been put towards improving landmine detection, APOPO’s rat method is the only one to actually begin making a difference. “We’ve been the only new technology that’s made it to the field out of those hundreds and hundreds of efforts,” says the company’s CEO, Christophe Cox (BBC.com). There are other manual ways of detecting the landmines, but they are generally very expensive and time consuming. The process is particularly difficult because there’s no ‘one size fits all’ when it comes to the mines. They can vary in type, age, and environment; all of which alter how difficult they are to find. Even more complicated is the fact that most explosive detectors react based on metal; any kind of metal. Rats beat out technology when it comes to this because they’re trained to smell explosives rather than detect metal, allowing them to bring about far less false positives than a metal detector would. Using only the scent of explosives also allows them to detect plastic landmines as well that a regular metal detector could not do. For these reasons, Guy Rhodes of the Geneva International Centre for Humanitarian Demining believes that the rats are a much better alternative to metal detecting technology; “You can spend a lot of time and money to find out there’s nothing,” he said. “and that’s where these animals are important. Rats are fairly quick tools to raise confidence there aren’t any mines in a large area” (BBC.com).
Why rats though? Why not dogs? Though both species have great senses of smell, rats have the advantage that because their eye sight is so bad, they compensate with their sense of smell all of the time, making it stronger than that of dogs. Additionally, rats are easier to get a hold of, feed, breed, and take care of in the long run. They are also smart enough to learn repetitive tasks very quickly, but they don’t get bored or distracted easily like dogs would. Dogs also tend to become bound tot heir trainers, which rats do not do, making them easier to handle and transfer between locations and trainers. It also helps that they are too light to accidentally set off the landmines; a quality not many animals have.
The rats are not sent in blind and expected to be too light to blow anything up, however. They begin being trained at a few months old using positive reinforcement and Pavlov’s clicker model. This means that they are trained to associate a “click” sound with a food reward. Later, they are taught to associate the scent of explosives with that reward, making them want to find the scent in the field, and therefore, find the landmines. Before the rats can be used, they must earn the International Mine Action Standards Accreditation and be certified for mine action. To do so, they have to pass a blind test in which they clear an 800 square mile field over the course of two days. To pass, they have to find 100% of the mines with no more than two false positives. At the moment, 300 rats have earned this accreditation and are working to clear the land in Thailand and Mozambique, while others are involved in technical surveys in Cambodia and Angola.
Though the rats have been very successful in helping to clear the area of landmines, this is not the only humanitarian task that APOPO is having them serve. In Tanzania, rats are used to detect Tuberculosis in human saliva samples. They act as a second-line detection system and are much quicker and more efficient at detecting TB cases than lab technicians are. Proof of this are the 2,400 people who the rats found had the disease, who had originally received a false negative result when they were examined using the conventional method of testing.
If the talents of these rats don’t have you wanting to run out and get a little buddy for yourself just yet, debunking these two myths might change your mind and have you heading for your keys.
1) First off, despite popular believe, rats are ridiculously clean. Like cats, they groom themselves multiple times a day.
2) They rarely bite. Like any animal, they will defend themselves if they feel threatened, but rats are generally social and loving creatures. They’re known for the strong bonds they form with their owners which could come rom their ability to learn their name and whatever tricks you teach them, or their love of attention and affection.