Rats are normally classified as vermin, but they can be heroes too. Proving the fact is APOPO, a Belgian NGO that trains African giant pouched rats to sniff out landmines and tuberculosis infections.
Since 2006, these ‘hero rats’ have been working on minefields in Mozambique, clearing the country of over 13,000 landmines, thus reclaiming over 11 million square meters of land. They’ve also accurately analyzed over a quarter of a million blood samples for TB infections.
Bart Weetjens, founder of APOPO, first came up with the idea of training sniffer rats a couple of decades ago, when he was a student at the University of Antwerp. He used to keep pet rodents as a boy, so he knew that they were “very trainable, sociable, and intelligent creatures.” The African giant pouched rat proved easy to train; it cost $6,900 to train each one, which is far cheaper than using humans or dogs.
They’re quicker too: humans with metal detectors would take five days to search 200 square meters of land, while the rats can do it in 20 minutes flat. And they are at least a kilogram lighter than the minimum weight required to trip off pressure-activated mines. APOPO takes good care of its hero rats. There have been zero casualties so far – no rats have died or been injured in the line of duty. Sunscreen is applied to their ears to prevent skin cancer, and once a rat is too old to work, it is retired and permitted to live out the rest of its natural life.