The PDSA Dickin Medal is the animal equivalent of the Victoria Cross for human gallantry by military personnel. For the first time in 77 years since the Dickin Medal has been in existence, a rat has won it. Maria Dickin created the medal to raise the status of animals in society to lead to improved welfare. She founded the PDSA (People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals) in 1917 in the UK.
The rat in question is named Magawa and as mentioned he is an African giant pouched rat. He will receive his medal for “life-saving bravery and devotion to duty” in successfully hunting for landmines in Cambodia where 5 million mines were laid between 1975 and 1998.
He is one of a cohort of rats who have been trained at four weeks of age to get used to being handled by humans and then using clicker training trained to detect landmines. They can smell the explosive chemical in the mines. Rats have an acute sense of smell and can work much faster than a metal detectorist because they ignore scrap metal. They are also much cheaper to train than dogs and they are easier to train than dogs as well.
Magwa is seven-years-of-age and he will work for another year before going into retirement in a spacious enclosure with a nest box, wooden ramps and a rope for exercise and play. He will be served up with excellent food including the occasional banana.
In Cambodia, more than 40,000 people have stepped on landmines. Magwa has detected 39 of them and 28 other items of unexploded ordnance. He has cleared an area the size of 20 football pitches and made it safe for residents.
He was trained by an organisation called Apopo based in Tanzania. Over the past 20 years they have trained almost 1,000 rats to detect landmines and tuberculosis.
It may interest cat lovers that Simon is the only feline to win the Dickin Medal for his bravery in the Second World War. In all 34 dogs, 32 pigeons, 4 horses and I cat have won the medal.