how’s your Thursday going so far? Actually, it doesn’t matter how it’s going because I’m here to make it immediately better. By talking about rats.
Rats? Rats! And not just any rats but heroic rats.
Now I know, apart from the ninja turtles’ trainer or that horrendously unimaginative children’s hero, Geronimo Stilton, there aren’t too many rats that occupy hero space in pop culture. Even in language, rat is a term generally used with negative connotations. And every plague poster ever put up by a civic body anywhere in the world has a picture of scary-looking rats on it.
And I admit, I, too, find rats a tad repulsive. You’d too if you’ve read Graveyard Shift in your formative years.
But the rats I’m talking about today are indeed heroic. How heroic? They’re even called Hero Rats.
I first read about them in 2015 while researching a project now shelved. These African Giant Pouched rats are specially trained by an organisation called APOPO, the Dutch acronym for Anti-Personnel Landmines Detection Product Development. As you might have guessed, these rats are trained to detect landmines buried all around the world. Landmines used in wars, international and civic, forgotten about when hostilities ceased. Landmines that are still active, and claim 100s of lives every year by virtue of being stepped on by unsuspecting folk.
APOPO started training rats back in 1997, moving to field trials in Tanzania in 2000. In 2003, these Hero Rats started sniffing out landmines in Mozambique, eventually leading to Mozambique being declared free of all landmines in 2015.
Since then, they’ve been on deployment in various parts of the world. Armed with a license from the International Mine Action Standards (IMAS), these Hero Rats have seen action in Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, Angola, and Zimbabwe, ridding over 100 million square metres of land of landmines.
Heroic enough, you’d think. But, in 2002, APOPO also began training these Hero Rats to detect TB, the world’s largest killer pre-pandemic. And the rats were super-successful at this, too, being used for early detection of TB all over Africa and setting up several clinics in the process.
Sometime in 2017, APOPO also introduced a Hero Dogs programme, but of these, there are so many, we’ll defer them to another day.