Keys Giant Mutant Rats Detect Land Mines and Tuberculosis

Photo by Briana Marie Forgie
Last week we told you about the African Gambian Pouched Rat's reemergence on Grassy Key. Now comes an organization headquartered in Tanzania called APOPO, dedicated to training African Gambian pouched rats to detect land mines and tuberculosis. When trained, they're dubbed HeroRATS.

Bart Weetjens, a self-described monk, started the organization in 1998. He had read an article about gerbils detecting explosives in airports and says he had an "aha" moment about the Giant Pouched Rats.

The rats train for 9 months -- though it only takes 2-4 weeks to socialize them with humans -- learning to sniff out the explosives in old land mines buried underground, he says.. They scratch the ground when they've smelled the TNT.

See also: Giant Rats Won't Die and Keep Invading Florida

After a chat with Chris Hines -- the executive director of the newly formed U.S. branch of APOPO, dedicated to fundraising, awareness, and communication -- we learned even more: that wild, adult Gambian rats are a big problem but if trained young, they could save millions of lives. Hines told us APOPO has 300-325 rats currently, spread out between operations in Tanzania, Mozambique and Angola. They get food, he says, with the use of sounds -- classical conditioning -- which helps when they are learning to look for the land mines.

Among the other interesting bits Hines relayed:

New Times: So, this Gambian Pouched Rat has been an alleged problem in South Florida for years, to the point that officials pretty much agree it needs to be eradicated. That necessary? Hypothetically, if these troublesome rats were all shipped to you, could you teach them anything?

Chris Hines: Yeah, unfortunately we couldn't train them because we actually have to start when they are very, very young. We have our breeding program in Tanzania and these particular species of rat, when they're wild, they're quite undomesticated animals, they're very tough, mean animals. We socialize them from a very young age to make sure they're used to humans and we socialize them to a certain extent that they become familiar with all human sounds and all human interaction. And once we start them at that young age, they become very social animals over the next seven years of their life. We can't actually use the wild animals, unfortunately.

Photo by Briana Marie Forgie

APOPO decided to use these Gambian rats because they're indigenous to Tanzania, but I'm curious: what was the perception of the animal over there before you guys had examples to point to of how they could be trained differently when they're young?

Generally, the rats aren't thought of as great creatures there in Tanzania either, so it's taken a lot of community involvement and buy-in to be able to interact and make sure not just our employees, but the larger community, has a good perspective of the rats. But we've done a lot of marketing and communication to really ensure the Tanzanian community understands what we're trying to do, that we're saving Tanzanian lives by training rats to detect tuberculosis. Once we communicate that message effectively, then rats are thought of as good, but it just takes some quite clear communication and people will slowly change their minds.

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