Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Bomb-sniffing rats impress military team

By Kelly Kennedy - Staff writer

When Army Maj. John Ringquist first encountered an African giant pouched rat in Tanzania, he was surprised by how affectionate it was.

“They’re gentle, friendly animals,” said Ringquist, a history instructor at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y., who specializes in sub-Saharan Africa. “They’re relatively charming.”

But interest in the African giant pouched rats goes well beyond their cuddle factor. Ringquist and Cadet Kayla Khan recently traveled to Tanzania to watch the rodents demonstrate their ability to sniff out land mines and see if there is any potential use for the animals in the U.S. military.

“I regarded the trip as proof that they are effective,” Ringquist said.

At first, he and Khan had no idea what to expect, having experienced only the urban variety of rat that people tend to avoid.

But before the demonstration, the rat handlers at APOPO, an African humanitarian organization that runs the training project, asked Ringquist and Khan if they would like to hold the rats.

“The rat scurried up my shoulder and wrapped its tail around my neck,” Ringquist said. “They like to lick your fingertips.”

The African rats will work for food — preferably banana paste — and have a big advantage over dogs in field environments: They weigh only about 6 pounds, so they won’t set off mines and other explosives when they step on them.

In the APOPO program, the rats are trained from birth not only to sniff out explosives but also diseases such as tuberculosis, or even humans who may be trapped after an earthquake or tornado.

After a disaster, it can take a week to set up a lab to test for tuberculosis. The rats provide a diagnosis immediately.

They can also scurry and climb in tight spaces, such as tunnels, and are much cheaper than mine-clearing vehicles or dogs. One drawback: They can cover only about 100 square yards a day.

The handlers have them sniff cigarette-sized filters doused in the scent of TNT, then train them to look for it. Land mines dot Tanzania’s borders; the rats are being trained to find those old mines. When they find one, they start to dig in that spot.

After seeing the rodents in action, Ringquist proposed a research project to the U.S. Army Research Laboratory, which sent a team to watch operations in Mozambique, where the rats look for real bombs.

“They were also convinced that it’s highly effective,” Ringquist said, adding that the rats could be effective for humanitarian missions, border control or in explosive ordnance detection as the U.S. leaves Iraq, for example.

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