TACOMA, Wash. — African giant pouched rats - the name speaks for itself. These large rodents have cheek pouches like hamsters, and they live in Africa. But what's not in the name is that these rats save lives.
African giant pouched rats have an amazing sense of smell. That's why the non-profit organization APOPO trains them to not only sniff out old landmines, but detect tuberculosis as well. These rats are nicknamed HeroRATs.
"The rats are too light to set off the landmines, so they have no problem walking right over the top, showing us where they're at, and they don't get hurt," Point Defiance Zoo staff biologist Jessica Sutherland says. To date, no rats have ever been killed or injured on a job.
APOPO carries out missions in countries such as Cambodia, Zimbabwe and Columbia. They've helped clear over 100,000 landmines, and raised tuberculosis detection by 40% in APOPO's partnered clinics.
At Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium, three rats show off their skills - no landmines or diseases involved. While the zoo's rats have charm and personality, they unfortunately didn't pass the 9 months of training to officially become a true HeroRAT.
"To go out in the field and work as a hero rat, you have to pass a certification where you are 100% accurate," Sutherland says. "And our rats didn't meet that 100% mark."
Luckily for the zoo, these rats are now ambassadors for their HeroRAT brothers and sisters. They educate zoo-goers with demonstrations. The rats get fitted with little harnesses and clipped onto a leash in a long box. Inside, they sniff out tea diffusers filled with nutmeg - a stand-in for landmines filled with TNT.
"This box is kind of a tiny version of what you would see out in the field," Sutherland says. "The rats would be guided by this wire while they're on their harness to make sure they're checking every strip of land. Once they check a long strip of land, they move over one little section and check the next strip."
At the zoo, for every tea diffuser found, the rat gets a click from the clicker - a common training tool used for positive reinforcement - as well as some kind words and their favorite treat, banana baby food.
Just another day in the life of a HeroRAT!
Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium | 5400 N Pearl St, Tacoma