Giant rats carrying backpacks are being trained to save human lives

APOPO, a non-profit organisation which uses animals and “scent detection technology” is training HeroRATs for search and rescue. And also, to detect landmines and sniff out illnesses such as TB. African giant pouched rats, almost the size of domestic cats, are being equipped with tiny rucksacks having been trained to search rubble for earthquake survivors.

Dr Kean carries an African giant pouched rat trained in search and rescue
Dr Kean carries an African giant pouched rat trained in search and rescue. Photo: Apopo on Twitter.

Dr. Donna Kean, who works with the non-profit organisation, says that the rats have a great sense of smell and can move through small spaces to search for survivors. Their basic behaviour sequence is to initially search for the victim, pull a ball to communicate that the victim has been found and then return to their trainer for a reward.

They have also been taught to respond to a beep which calls them back to base. Dr. Kean said: “We have the potential to speak to victims through the rat. We are getting custom-made backpacks which will have video recorders, microphones and a location transmitter”.

It is hoped that they will eventually carry GPS trackers as well. Dr. Kean is a research scientist from Glasgow who devised the project. The rats have been cared for by humans since birth. That makes them fully socialised and therefore domesticated. They have never been near a sewer! They are being trained at a centre in Tanzania.

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So far 7 rats have been coached to enter debris while carrying home-made prototype backpacks. In total 170 rats are being trained.

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Dr. Kean said: “We have not been in a real situation yet. We have a mock debris site. When we get the new backpacks, we will be able to hear from where they are based and where the rat is, inside the debris. We hope it will save lives. The results are really promising. They are so agile. They are so good at moving through all different kinds of environments.”

My mind turns to the general perception of rats as vermin, pests and disease carriers. The entire world hates them. The entire world wants to see them killed and eradicated. And here we have rats trained to save human lives. It makes you think a little bit of it does me anyway. I don’t think we should actually regard rats as vermin. I believe that humans have a perception problem with pest animals. It is a stark example of speciesism which is practised by humankind all the time all over the planet.

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Post Category: Rats