Sunday, November 23, 2008

"Rats are more honest." by Anthony McCarthy

Here’s a wonderful story about trained rats saving lives.

In Mozambique, special squads of raccoon-size rats are sniffing out lethal explosive devices buried across the countryside, remnants of the country's anticolonial and civil wars of the last century.

In neighboring Tanzania, teams of rats use their twitchy noses to detect TB bacteria in saliva samples from four clinics serving slum neighborhoods. So far this year, the 25 rats trained for the pilot medical project have identified 300 cases of early-stage TB - infections missed by lab technicians with their microscopes. If not for the rodents, many of these victims would have died and others would have spread the disease.

"It's fair, I think, to call these animals 'hero rats,' " said Bart Weetjens, the Belgian conceiver of both programs.

The rat squads, at first derided by some international aid officials as ridiculous, have won support from the World Bank and praise from the UN and land mine eradication groups. Now there are plans to deploy the creatures to Angola, Congo, Zambia, and other land mine-infested lands.

You might suspect that this is the kind of program that would have been held up to ridicule by the corporate media here, to supply it with cheap filler between celebrity scandal. Is it fair to wonder if, perhaps, these rats haven’t done more to save innocent people from land mines than many respected diplomats?* It might. And the story could provide an explaination.

For both TB and land mines, the rats are trained to respond to the sound of a clicker; when the rat makes the scratching motion that means it has detected an explosive or the odor of disease, the handler or trainer responds by snapping the clicker, which means a nut or fruit is on the way.

So why don't the animals just scratch every few minutes to win a treat?

"That would be human behavior," said Weetjens. "Rats are more honest."

* The United States, China, India and a number of other countries have still not signed onto the landmine ban. That is something that the Obama Administration should be lobbied to do.