“Some people cringe when they see a rat, but Bart Weetjens smiles. A Belgian product designer, Weetjens devised a way for these often reviled rodents to help solve a global problem: how to locate land mines, some 60 million of which are scattered in 69 countries. Dogs are often deployed to sniff them out, “but I knew rats were easier to train,” says Weetjens, who bred them as a boy. Rats are also light, so they don’t detonate the mines they find; they stay healthy in tropical areas, where many explosives are buried; and they’re cheap to breed and raise. In the late 1990s Weetjens chose the African giant pouched rat, with its very sensitive nose, for Pavlovian training: If the rats scratched the ground when they sniffed TNT, they got a reward.
More than 30 trained sniffer rats, aka HeroRATS, have started sweeping minefields in Mozambique, where they’ve cleared almost a quarter square mile. Weetjens also trains rats to screen human saliva for tuberculosis and is mulling new missions, such as finding earthquake victims buried in rubble. Lives saved, health improved, mine defused – nothing to cringe about here.” ~Alan Mairson
National Geographic, October 2008