Monday, December 15, 2008

Hero Rats!

Yesterday, an acquaintance told me the most amazing thing. Rats (yep, the heretofore underappreciated garden-variety rodents) are being trained to literally sniff out landmines. Because their sense of smell is so acute and they are easily trained to do repetitive tasks they are ideally suited for this dangerous work.

According to the International Red Cross, more than 100 million landmines have been deployed in over 90 countries. That's one hundred MILLION. That's a lot of zeroes…plenty to kill or maim about 50 people a day. And because landmines are usually used in underdeveloped countries without sufficient resources to detect and remove them, whole tracts of land become off-limits to families for farming, children playing and trucking in much-needed supplies.

Enter HeroRATS, the brainchild of a Belgian organization. About 10 years ago, this group realized that trained rats would be a low cost, efficient and local way of addressing this problem.

The rats' training begins at the tender age of 5 weeks. First they're conditioned to become used to the sights and sounds of the world. Can you just picture these little guys on tiny leashes, noses twitching, GOING FOR RIDES, MEETING NEW PEOPLE?
After that, they're trained to associate their handler's clicking sounds with rewards of bananas or peanuts (cheap and available in developing countries). When the rats are finally trained to detect particular smells, they become full-fledged HeroRATS.

NOTE: It's common knowledge that the dream of every rat is to become a HeroRAT! Note that "HeroRAT" should be said with the same enthusiasm and cadence as "SuperMan". Watch An Amazing HeroRAT in Action!

HeroRATS have 3 different job descriptions…some sniff out the presence of explosives in soil samples, others work on-site finding hidden landmines, and yet others are trained to detect the presence of tuberculosis in sputum samples. Tuberculosis, you ask? Yes! TB is a huge problem in Africa. HeroRATS can evaluate 40 samples in 10 minutes, equal to what a skilled lab technician using a microscope can do in 2 days. Catching and treating TB early can stop the spread of this deadly disease.

And if you now find yourself worrying about the courageous little buggers, be assured that because of their small size, HeroRATS don't trigger the landmines. They simply scratch the soil where they find one and then move on. To learn more or to adopt a HeroRAT, check out

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