Thursday, January 26, 2012

Hero Rats!

Once again, it's time to recognize Beebz' rodent cousins the rats.

APOPO (Anti-Persoonsmijnen Ontmijnende ProductOntwikkeling, Dutch for Anti-Personnel Landmines Detection Product Development) is a non-profit organization that does something extraordinary: they train giant African pouch rats to detect land mines. In many parts of the world, particularly in areas of Africa and Asia, land mines have been left behind in the wake of armed conflicts and pose a serious danger to people living in those areas. Finding the mines and clearing them is difficult, time-consuming, and dangerous work--one mistake can cost the clearer his or her life or, at the very least, can result in the loss of a limb.

Don't worry, I'm here to help!
This is where the rats come in. The giant African pocket rat is a large, intelligent, and easily-trained rodent. The rats are trained to move along a line stretched between two handlers and, when it detects the smell of explosives, to scratch at the spot. Using this method, the rats are able to cover a field much more quickly than humans using minesweepers would be able to, and with much less danger of triggering any mines.

It should be emphasized that because of the rats' light weight, there is no danger of them triggering the mines--during the more than a decade since the program was started not a single rat has been killed or injured. Besides their light weight, rats have several other advantages for this work:
  • They are sociable, intelligent, and easy to train.
  • They have an excellent sense of smell.
  • They can identify mines to be cleared more quickly than human workers using minesweepers.
  • They offer a low-tech and inexpensive solution to a serious problem that afflicts many areas with few resources.
  • The African pouch rats have a long life span.
But clearing mines isn't all that these rats do. APOPO has also begun training rats to detect tuberculosis, a serious pulmonary disease that afflicts many impoverished areas. A single rat can screen forty sputum samples for TB in less than seven minutes, a job that would take a trained technician an entire day. The use of rats for TB detection is still in the development phase, but the initial results suggest that the rats have greater accuracy finding positive samples than the use of microscopy.

APOPO's training and breeding facility is in Tanzania. So far, the organization has done valuable work clearing land mines from areas in Mozambique and Thailand.

For anyone who is concerned about the treatment of rats used for what sounds like a dangerous task, a quick review of the FAQ page at APOPO's website should ease your mind. It only makes sense that animals being employed for important and sensitive work would be treated very well.

Squirrel Nation is proud to salute the brave Hero Rats of APOPO!

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