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Hero rats: what are they & what do they do?

Many may have just read this headline and said to themselves “rats, what the heck are hero rats?”. That’s a good question and we are going to answer it in this article for you! Many of us are scared of rats and view them as some sort a pest in ones home, however, there are rats out there being trained by an organisation called APOPO which is based in Tanzania that are saving the lives of many humans. Without giving too much away in this first paragraph, they train this breed of rats to detect landmines and tuberculosis. The organisation was founded in 1995 by Bart Weejen who wondered as a pet rat owner, if he could train his intelligent pets to conquer a global problem? The answer was yes they can and to this day the organisation has been doing remarkable work!

What Are Hero Rats?

Photo Credit: APOPO Instagram

APOPO’s Hero Rats are African giant pouched rats. These large rodents are found in sub-Saharan Africa. They are omnivorous and mostly nocturnal. They have long heads and large ears and they get their name from their cheek pouches that are used to store and carry their food. They have long tails which are white from the middle to the tip. Their head and body lengths range from 25-30 cm and tails range from 20-25cm. They weigh between 1 and 1.3 kg. After reading this description, you may be thinking “that’s my worst nightmare”. Well, what is amazing about these rats is that they are absolute geniuses who are trained by APOPO to detect landmines and tuberculosis in order to save people’s lives. They have been given the nickname ‘Hero Rats’ for this exact reason.

Why Rats?

Photo Credit: APOPO Instagram

Rats are the perfect candidates for the job because they have a highly developed sense of smell, they are intelligent and easy to train, they are much too light to set off landmines, they are locally sourced and widely available, they are easily transferable between trainers, they are cheap to feed, breed and maintain. In addition to that they live for 6-8 years which is 3-5 years longer than the average pet rat. They are also indigenous to sub-Saharan Africa and therefore they are resistant to tropical diseases.

How To Train Hero Rats?

Photo Credit: APOPO Instagram

After the Hero Rats are born, they remain with their mothers for 3 weeks. Once they reach 4 weeks old, they can begin socialising and getting used to being held and transported. During this time, they are also getting used to noises around them and the smell of people and their surroundings. Once they reach 6 weeks old, their clicker training begins. If you do not know what clicker training is, many use it for training their dogs and it is essentially a training method that is based on bridging stimulus in operant conditioning.

In other words, the system used conditioned reinforcers, which a trainer can deliver faster and more precisely than primary reinforcers such as food. They begin the clicker training by bringing the hero rats over to soil tables individually so that they can get used to the feel for the soil and so they can learn that they will receive food after hearing the clicking noise. The desired behaviour is marked right away with a click and then rewarded with some tasty food.

 Trainers encourage the rats to explore the soil table and to return to them once the rat has heard the click. The older hero rats have been accustomed to wearing a harness and have learned to respond to the commands of their trainer. After this point, the rats learn to walk up and down a pulley system and to find buried tea eggs containing various smells. It takes up to 9 months to full training before they are deemed ready to search for the real landmines.

Landmine Detection

Photo Credit: APOPO Instagram

APOPO’s mine detection rats are integrated into existing ways of detecting landmines in order to speed up mine clearance. This works effectively because APOPO’s Hero Rats are too light to trigger the landmines. The Hero Rats are considered to be the perfect tool for speeding up both detection and clearance. How it works is the trainers keep the rats on a lead essentially and walk with them, they train the rats to scratch the ground and they sniff out whether there is a landmine. If the rat shows signs that there is, the trainer will inspect that further with a metal detector and if there is a landmine, they will destroy it. They use clicker training to train the rats, when they follow the corrections the trainer gives, they receive a banana as a treat which they stuff into their cheek (which is actually incredibly cute).

Detecting Tuberculosis

Photo Credit: APOPO Instagram

Landmine detection is not all these giant rats do, they also detect tuberculosis. You may be wondering how does that work? Well, the rats are placed in a test cage above 10 human sputum samples which they test one by one. They run up and down the cage using their powerful sniffer to find out which samples are positive. They indicate this to the trainers by scratching on the specific sample. One they show the trainers that they suspect a sample is positive, they receive a reward for finding the ones with tuberculosis. They use clicker training here again. What is amazing about this in particular is that the hero rats can check over 100 sputum samples within only 20 minutes! By comparison, it would take the lab technician 4 days to do this. When you compare this to how long it would take the lab technician to do this, it is truly remarkable! APOPO has raised the detection rate in partner clinics by over 45%.

A Big Clap for Our Heroes

Photo Credit: APOPO Instagram

So, there you have it, not just simply a pest in ones home, there are rats out there saving the world, they just have not invested in the cape just yet. These giant rats paired with APOPO make for the perfect team when it comes to landmine detection and detecting tuberculosis. After reading this, you probably need to let all this information sink in, which I get, it is hard to believe. But, in saying that, if you do want to learn some more about APOPO or witness these rats in action, you can check out YouTube where they have lots of videos of the training and detection in action. Also, you can check out their website for more information about the organisation and their starting points. If you would like to support the organisation, there is also an option to adopt one of these cute big rats for €9. Although, they won’t be mailed to your door, you will receive little updates on how your hero is getting on! Also, you can donate to their organisation or shop from them as they have a little online shop where you can purchase t-shirts and other cool things.

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