Could rats save people from disaster zones?

One of APOPO's "hero rats", photo by APOPO Visitor Centre Facebook.

Could rats save the day when disaster strikes?

A Belgian organisation is training rats to search for survivors in disaster zones. The organisation, APOPO, says that rats’ small size and strong sense of smell make them ideal for locating things in tight spaces.

APOPOP has been training dogs and rats at its base in Morogoro, Tanzania to use their sense of smell to detect landmines, and tuberculosis. The project was officially launched in April 2021.

Meanwhile, engineers are in the process of designing tiny backpacks for the rats. The technology in the backpacks will allow first responders to communicate with victims via the rats.

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Researcher Dr Donna Kean told Reuters that the rats are being trained to pull a microswitch around their necks when a victim has been located.

Kean said that rats are as trainable as dogs. She said that the team is now making the rats’ training environment more complex, to more closely resemble real disaster sites.

Kean said that after the rats are proficient, the team plans to move to Turkey for the rats to train further with the Turkish search and rescue organisation GEA. If the project is successful in Turkey, it could be moved to operational trials in which the rats could be mobilised in response to any natural disaster.

APOPO’s website has a page explaining how people can “adopt a hero rat” for a small monthly contribution, to help save lives. There is also a donation page.

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Tara Abhasakun

A Thai-American dual citizen, Tara has reported news and spoken on a number of human rights and cultural news issues in Thailand. She holds a Bachelor’s Degree in history from The College of Wooster. She interned at Southeast Asia Globe, and has written for a number of outlets. Tara reports on a range of Thailand news issues.

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