Everyone knows that rats have a nose for garbage, but their sense of smell now serves another higher purpose -- sniffing out landmines to save lives. Bomb-sniffing dogs are a common sight in airports and other public spaces, but an organization called APOPO says that rats can do similar work, sometimes even better than a dog.
"We have 50 rats working in minefields in Mozambique at the moment," Mic Billet, the president of APOCO, said in an interview from his office in Antwerp, Belgium.
APOPO is funded primarily by the Belgian government, with a facility in Tanzania where they train some very talented rats. The rats look somewhat like the rodents found in American pet stores or labs, but they're much larger. Called African Giant Pouched rats, they grow about 2.5 feet in length including the tail, weigh over 3 pounds, and can live 8 years.
According to trainers, a rat's sense of smell works just as well as a dog's to detect mines, and the creatures' small size gives them some big advantage on the minefield. Not only are they easier to feed and transport, "their light weight makes it highly unlikely they would set off a mine by scratching or pointing," APOPO writes on its website.
It takes between six months to a year to train a rat's sense of smell, and Billet says they're easy to work with.
"They are very friendly," without being needy, he said. "When you work with a dog, you have to say, 'Good boy!' A rat doesn't need that. The rat tells you, I try to find the contamination, and if I do, you will feed me."
His rats find plenty of contamination, averaging 2 to 5 landmine discoveries a day in Mozambique. But what's more important, Billet said, is the number of acres that have been given back to the local people.
"In Mozambique, we gave 1,300,012 acres back," he said, helping nearly 45,000 people in 2009 alone.
APOPO has dubbed the rodents "Hero Rats," but the idea to use rodents for this work was laughed off at first. Billet and a colleague came up with the idea back in 1995 when they were brainstorming ways to help landmine victims. Originally, they planned to build prosthetics for victims but then decided to deal with the root of the problem by finding a better way to get rid of mines. After months of research, they came up with rats.
A professor at the University of Antwerp, Billet went to the university's biologists to ask if the idea could work.
"In the first minutes they thought, 'the old man is getting a bit nuts or Alzheimer's is coming on,'" he remembered. They were soon convinced, though, and after a two-year feasibility study, the rats showed they were more than up to the task.
APOPO started off training bomb-sniffing rats, but they're now using the rodents for other purposes. They've trained some rats to detect tuberculosis, taking them into African hospitals to test samples quickly, cheaply and more accurately. "Last year, the rats detected 905 positive TB samples, all classified as negative by the labs," Billet said.
So if rats are so good at this work, is there a chance you'll see a rat on a leash, standing guard at the airport sometime soon?
"It's absolutely possible to use the rats in airports," Billet said, "but at this moment, we don't work on this implementation."
Maybe not in airports yet, but even the most rat-phobic have to admire this clever and successful way of improving lives and preventing landmine-related deaths.