Robin approached us following World Rat Day earlier this month, to see if we’d be interested in learning and talking about the APOPO – an organisation who train giant rats to detect landmines, diagnose health risks, and aid in disaster recovery. Of course, we couldn’t resist, so we pinned him down to answer a few questions.
Q: Could you introduce yourself, and tell us a little about APOPO, and what you do?
Hello, my name is Robin and I’m the Online Development Manager for a very special non-profit that trains giant rats to save lives in developing countries. Yes, you read that right. Just like border control trains dogs to sniff out contraband, we train our HeroRATs to sniff out deadly landmines from the ground, and tuberculosis from the sputum samples of potentially sick people. The rats have proven to be a highly effective, low-cost, locally available solution to deadly humanitarian problems. And dont worry, not a single one comes to harm. Animal welfare is a top priority for us and we treat our rats like the heroes they are.
Q: When say you ‘giant rats’, just how large are we talking?
Pretty large, they can reach up to three feet long including their tails. A rough comparison would be that our HeroRATs are about the size of a common domestic cat.
Q: You’ve had a lot of coverage from big newspapers and the media recently; how is this changing the perception of rats, and what wider impact has it had?
One of our ambitions at APOPO is to rehabilitate the image of rats and showcase them as the wonderful, charismatic and highly skilled creatures that they are. A lot of people carry negative perceptions of rats, whether it is due to links with the plague or sewers, and it can be difficult for some people to overcome those ideas. Others, wrongly assume that we’re training Kamikaze rats who are simply sent into minefields to die when the reality couldn’t be further from the truth.
Our HeroRATs are highly skilled animals who undergo over nine months of training and have to pass rigorous safety tests before they are approved for detection work. The coverage from the world’s media about our work is important to overcoming these barriers and encourage people to reassess their opinions about these remarkable creatures.
Q: How did you celebrate World Rat Day?
Every year April 4th is both World Rat Day and Landmine Awareness Day so it is a doubly poignant day for us and the HeroRATs. This year the 4th fell on a Saturday meaning that we all had a nice lie in before we shared a special treat of watermelon and peanuts with all of the HeroRATs at our HQ in Morogoro, Tanzania.
Q: What else can we use giant rats for? Is this just the beginning?
This is just the beginning! In less than a decade the HeroRATs have helped find more than 48,000 landmines and cleared more than 18,000,000 square meters of suspected minefield. Whilst our TB service, which is just a couple of years old, has detected more than 7,500 cases missed by traditional screening methods.
We’re constantly researching new applications for what we call scent detection technology. We’ve demonstrated that giant rats can be used to locate people trapped in disaster situations such as earthquakes, something we’ve dubbed “CameRAT”. We believe there is potential use for our HeroRATs within a number of fields, medical (cancer, diabetes), environmental (pipeline corrosion, wood mold, microbial growth in buildings), contaminated food/water (salmonella, legionella, fungus), forensics (blood, gunshot residue), customs (tobacco, narcotics, explosives), and agricultural (termites, screwworms, weevils). We are not pursuing all of these applications, but we may explore some of them in the future if it looks like the rats would be a low cost, low tech solution.
Q: Other than World Rat Day, what’s your favourite Day Of The Year, from a personal perspective?
Funnily enough, both I and the HeroRATs share a favourite Day Of The Year… Banana Day! I’ve loved bananas ever since a young boy when we used to eat them at half time of youth football matches (I don’t know what happened to the traditional orange segments!) and still eat them for breakfast today. As for the HeroRATs, bananas are highly prized in the wild so when they get the chance to have a nibble they go crazy for it. We love bananas at APOPO. In fact, the HeroRATs are effectively paid in bananas!
So, it turns out that these rats are pretty awesome, and it’s no surprise that APOPO is getting huge amounts of attention from organisations like the BBC and major news outlets.
We’re looking forward to World Rat Day next year, when we hope to catch up with Robin and see what new tricks our furry friends have developed…