If you were told that Rats would one day be responsible for saving lives, would you have believed it? Would you believe that one of the most reviled species of animals would be the lifeline for victims in a disaster zone? The answer to these questions is most likely a resounding no. But a new experiment is looking to change the rat-human status quo. Rats in Tanzania, described as ‘Hero Rats’ are currently being trained to carry tiny backpacks into Earthquake Zones to mediate between rescue teams and survivors.
For most of us, rats are dirty sewer creatures and widely considered unhygienic; the sight of a rat’s naked tail may be enough to cause some people to shrink or get the shivers; this could be true, but not entirely correct, especially for Jennifer Graham, a veterinarian at the Henry and Lois Foster Hospital for Small Animals. Graham believes that rats are actually smart, empathetic, and kind of adorable.
Tanzania’s ‘Hero Rats’ confirms Graham’s position as 7 rats are now being trained to be sent into earthquake debris. They will wear tiny backpacks containing a microphone and video gear as well as a location tracker to allow rescue teams communicate with survivors during earthquakes.
For the first time, the Tanzanian-trained rodents will get the chance to work in the field when they are sent to Turkey, which is prone to earthquakes.
Dr. Donna Kean from Glasgow, but currently based in Morogoro, Tanzania is one of those behind this ground-breaking project at APOPO. She is particularly fascinated by these creatures as she described them as ‘sociable’ creatures, and believes the work being done will save lives. According to her, the ‘Hero Rats’ will have the potential to speak to victims and with the tracker, share victims’ current position, which in turn, will speed up the rescue process. Rats are particularly a good option for this mission because they have the ability to survive in different environments and their tiny size makes them suitable for search and rescue work. The rodents are also trained to respond to a beep from the tracker, which calls them back to the base.
Unknown to most of us, Rats are taking up more responsibility and helping to save lives. Research published early this year by Health Africa shows that rodents can smell tuberculosis with 85% accuracy, helping prevent over 116,000 new infections in Tanzania. This particular Rat is known as the African giant pouched rat. According to the research, the rats have been found to outdo conventional testing methods in accuracy, speed, and cost.
Since 1997, APOPO has trained Rats in Tanzania, and then deployed them to countries such as Angola, Cambodia, and Mozambique to help clear landmines and other unexploded ordnances. The most recent of this innovation is training Rats to take up what used to be, the responsibility of Dogs. Dr. Kean is quite excited to see this remarkable project take the world by surprise. It currently takes about two weeks to train and get the rats up to speed and ready to be deployed.
While it may take more time to change the rat-human dynamic, when next you see a rat, take some time to consider how much more intelligent and complex this animal is. Rats can be more than dirty, annoying creatures, they could be the new generation rescuers.