I Smell a Rat, A Rat Smells Danger

By Duncan Strauss

 

APOPO co-founder/CEO Christophe Cox: ‘We had rats up for adoption, and that usually makes a good Christmas gift.’

 

When you hear someone shout “rats!,” it’s typically for one of two reasons. Either that person has heard something disappointing or unfortunate–or has encountered an unexpected colony of rodents.

Turns out there’s a third, wholly unforeseen reason for hollering “rats!”: In a friendly tone, to congratulate the critters for finding the landmines.

Wait, what?

Welcome to the world of APOPO, a Tanzania-based nonprofit organization that trains African giant pouched rats to detect landmines, and instructs a different group of those rats to detect tuberculosis.

APOPO: A basic overview

Christophe Cox, APOPO’s co-founder and CEO, discussed the genesis of this improbable enterprise on the Dec. 27 edition of Talking Animals.

Cox recalled that, back in the day, his Belgium school chum (and APOPO co-founder) Bart Weetjens owned a pet rat, read an article about using gerbils as scent detectors, and had a light bulb moment: Maybe a rat could be taught to detect landmines. Cox was in Kenya at the time, fulfilling his commitment to social studies, which Belgium offered as an alternative to military duty. But he was staying in close touch with his friend.

“That was the time before the internet,” Cox recalled, ”so we were writing letters to each other two or three times a week. I would drive 30 kilometers to the post box to get my letter. Then, he sent me that first letter like ‘Oh, I’m going to train rats to detect land mines.’ And I thought, ‘Well, maybe he had a good night out yesterday!’ But here we are now.”

Cox can certainly be forgiven for thinking Weetjens’ initial announcement of his plans to train rats to detect landmines might be the product of too many Belgian beers the night before.

A day in the life of a HeroRAT-in-training

But where we are now is a hair past marking the 20th anniversary of APOPO, a Dutch acronym that, translated, Cox, explained “stands for Anti-Personal Mine Product Development.”

In such countries as Cambodia, Angola and Mozambique, and gearing up new operations in Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, and possibly Columbia, these so-called “HeroRATS” employ their extraordinary olfactory sense and significant training to locate landmines. A reasonable question to raise at this point, especially from those who just can’t imagine themselves becoming pro-rodent under any circumstance, is: Why use rats to undertake such important work rather than stick with other tried-and-true methods? The answer is where we step into a province that simultaneously gets curiouser and curiouser, and starts to make perfect sense: Because the rats are better—and faster—at finding landmines.

It’s been said that a mine-detecting rat can survey an area the size of a tennis court in about 30 minutes, while a de-mining human, equipped with a metal detector, would take about four days to do the same job.

Geez, let’s pick up the pace, George.

Landmine detecting HEroRATS in Cambodia

Given the gravity of the assignment—and the implications of erring in carrying out that assignment—it’s probably unsurprising that the training these rats undergo is extensive, starting, in a sense, before the animals are even born.

That is, APOPO breeds the rats that will become landmine detectors (or tuberculosis detectors), leaving nothing to chance genetically or behaviorally, in the same way that Guide Dogs For The Blind, Canine Companions For Independence and other organizations providing highly trained service dogs breed all the animals that enter their programs.

“For the training of the rats we have quite an established S.O.P. [standard operating procedure]. We do the breeding in-house then, after four weeks, we take the rats from the litter daily and we start socializing them./It takes a few weeks to make them used to new sounds and surfaces and noises and putting them in a car. A few weeks later, we go on with clicker association with food–a click means food, so the rat learns the association./After that, we start teaching the rat that it has to do something in order to get the click and the food. So it has to walk on small, soft surface boxes and identify some TNT targets. If it approaches the TNT target and stays there, it will get a click and a reward.

“The next step is that we put negative targets in between, and gradually we build up and they go on bigger surfaces, then they’re transported to our minefields.

“We have well established mine fields here that have over 1500 closed targets to the ground. Initially, they start on small [parcels] with shallow mines, and we develop that until about nine months of training.

HeroRATS detecting tuberculosis

“Then, we do an accreditation test, which implies that the rat has to search 400 square meters”—that’s an international standard, Cox explains—“but internally we go up to 800 square meters.The boxes typically contain between one to four mines for 100 square meters. And the rest is not allowed to miss any mine, and can have a maximum of two failed indications for 100 square meter box. Once they pass that test, they are exported to the country of deployment, where, again, they will get an external accreditation by the national authorities. And once they accomplish that, they are accredited as a full mine detector. At that stage, we still use two animals to search an area to be 100 percent sure.”

Of course, another virtue to hiring a rat for this gig—even a rat a good deal larger than the kind traipsing around your attic or hauling a slice of pizza around the streets of New York City—is that it’s so lightweight, it won’t set off a landmine mid-search. Indeed, Cox says that in APOPO’s 20’s years, a rat has never triggered the detonation of a landmine.

Collectively, here’s what the rats have done: Detected over 100,000 landmines, consequently helping clear, and declare safe, vast expanses of land, spanning multiple countries.

Hearty congratulations are in order for the HeroRATS, which Cox says currently number around 300 in toto, and typically see a life expectancy of around eight years. And they’re unlikely to be heading to the Unemployment Office any time soon. In addition to the regions where APOPO is fully functioning or ramping up operations, Cox says, “At the moment, there are about plus sixty countries still that have a landmine problem. Of course, not all countries are suitable for us to walk in. Sometimes the scope of the problem is too exposed, or small, or maybe the security situation is not good.”

Keep in mind, though, that some of the rats’ colleagues are on a different tenure track. By which I mean, the rats whose bailiwick is detecting tuberculosis.

If this sounds as improbable as rats ferreting (!) landmines, it may come as no surprise that the same brainy innovator hatched this APOPO plot, too.

At TEDxRotterdam, APOPO co-founder Bart Weetjens talks about his extraordinary project: training rats to sniff out land mines. He shows clips of his ‘hero rats’ in action, and previews his work’s next phase: teaching them to turn up tuberculosis in the lab.

“My colleague Bart Weetjens came up with the idea,” Cox said, “and due to our long time collaboration with Sokoine University of Agriculture in Tanzania, APOPO happened to get based in Tanzania. But there are no landmines in Tanzania, though there is a big tuberculosis problem. Tanzania is one of the TB high-burden countries.

“And, of course, knowing that everything has a smell and, in the old days, doctors sometimes used to diagnose TB based on smell. There’s some anecdotal evidence of it. So, we basically started with the local hospital collecting some samples and applying some training methods, which we had then. And we found out that the rats would fairly quickly differentiate TB positive with some samples from TB negative with some samples…and I mean, Bart developed this idea.”

Specifically, the rats are utilized with samples that were initially deemed negative, but as a means to double-check, the animals often determine—accurately—that the samples are, in fact, positive for TB.

In an echo of APOPO’s landmine detection efforts expanding to more and more countries, the TB detection business is widening out to many more hospitals, as well, not just in Tanzania, but also in Mozambique and Ethiopia.

Both sides of the APOPO juggernaut involve sprawling, ambitious enterprises—including sizable personnel forces–that generate significant expenses.

APOPO is funded through a combination of “government grants, foundations, research grants, and more and more, we get generous support from the public,” Cox said. “But funding is a challenge because, globally, the funding for de-mining is going down.

There’s another way to boost the APOPO coffers, Cox notes in this conversation held in December. “[The public] helped us mainly through adopting a rat. We had rats up for adoption, and that usually makes a good Christmas gift.”

Stepping into the fanciful world of APOPO, adopting a rat seems like a perfectly reasonable move.

Put me down for two.

Here’s the link to the edition of Talking Animals featuring the interview with Christophe Cox

 

About the Author: Combining his passions for animals, radio, journalism, music and comedy, Duncan Strauss launched Talking Animals at KUCI in California in 2003. Since late 2005 the show has aired on Tampa’s WMNF. Producer-host Strauss lives in Jupiter Farms, FL, with his family, including four cats, two horses and one dog. He spends each day talking to those animals, and maintains they talk right back to him, a claim as yet unverified by credible sources.