Training Rats To Save Lives

In 1995, Bart Weetjens was exploring solutions for the global landmine problem, when he came across an article about how gerbils were being used as scent detectors. Since he was a pet rat owner at the time, he came up with the idea of using rats — intelligent, cheap and widespread all over the world — to detect landmines. He settled on the African Giant Pouched rat because of its longevity — an average of eight years. The APOPO (Anti-Personnel Landmines Removal Product Development) project began in 1997. Full training of the rodents begins when they are 5-6 weeks old and takes approximately nine months, costing around $7,000 per rat. The rats wear harnesses connected to a rope suspended between two handlers, and when they detect a landmine, they scratch at the ground. The rats are also used to detect tuberculosis by sniffing sputum samples. When a rat detects TB, it keeps its nose in the sample hole and scratches at the floor of the cage. The key advantage of the rats is speed. They work at low cost and a fast pace.