We train rats to save lives.
The Belgian non-governmental (NGO), non-profit organization APOPO has made it their incredibly admirable mission to train the highly intelligent African giant pouched rats, aka HeroRATS, to use their noses for such humanitarian purposes as expediently detecting bombs in post-conflict countries and detecting tuberculosis in developing countries, thus potentially saving the lives of thousands of people. The rats are trained from a young age and are rewarded through positive motivation.
APOPO trains the rats through operant conditioning, using a combination of a click sound and food rewarding. Training starts at the age of 4-5 weeks, with socialization. The young rats are weaned from their mothers and APOPO’s trainers begin socializing them to the sights, sounds, and textures of the human world. Once our rats are six weeks old, click training begins, where we teach the rats to associate a click sound with a food reward – usually banana or peanuts. After two weeks at this stage, the rats learn that click means food, and are now ready to be trained on a target scent. After these steps, our rats specialize in a target scent in either TNT for detecting landmines or TB for detecting TB in human sputum samples. After odor imprint, the complexity of their tasks gradually increases until they reach the final training stage where they have to do a blind test in order to be accredited.
As of this date, none of the HeroRATS have died in the line of duty and the trainers take special care to apply sunscreen to the rodents’ ears when they are working outside. Anyone wishing to contribute to APOPO can either donate directly or “adopt” a HeroRAT with an ongoing subscription.