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article imageTrained rats humanity's new best friends?

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By R. C. Camphausen     Nov 9, 2010 in World
Morogoro - Rats are being trained to use their superior sense of smell, and human are using their Pavlovian proclivity to respond to treats, resulting in the rodents detecting hidden mines, and patients infected with tuberculosis as well.
The website Dutch News contains a strange but telling error when it says that rats are "being trained by a pioneering Dutch NGO to smell out deadly land-mines." If one follows the link, one finds out that the non-governmental organization (NGO) in question is not Dutch, but Belgian, and is known by the name APOPO.
While that fact is wrongly reported, it does not take away from the essence of the story: rats, animals usually suffering from an image problem among humans, are turning out to be most helpful friends, aiding humans in detecting dangerous land-mines in war-zones, and helping to sniff out tuberculosis-infected patients in cases where laboratories fail to detect these.
The Dutch News website leads to an AFP report that has the following to say about trained rats and how they are making a difference in Africa: A baby rat in a tiny red and black harness twitches its pointed nose incessantly, probing a grassy field where it is being trained by a pioneering Belgian NGO to smell out deadly landmines.
Other rats trained under the same scheme have already helped clear large swathes of land in neighbouring mine-infested Mozambique.
Training of such specialized rats seems to begin when the rodents are a mere four weeks old, from which time on they are taught to associate a certain click sound with food. It's a classical Pavlovian training, but it has been shown that rats can be trained earlier and more easily than dogs -- the animals usually regarded as "man's best friend."
Rats who succeed in sniffing out TNT, indicating the presence of a mine, are rewarded with a little piece of banana, and off they go again to find another dangerous place no-one more weighted than a rat should step upon. The rats being used in this project are known as giant African pouched rats, and they've not only proved successful with mines, but also -- if so trained -- in detecting tuberculosis in saliva or mucus samples of patients who were regarded as not infected in standard laboratory tests.
Since that particular programme started, in 2007, rats have identified more than 1,500 TB infections that had initially been missed by the doctor's microscopes. Bart Weetjens, the founder of APOPO, has this to say about rats: Rats absolutely have an image problem. People don't like them and that is one of our biggest struggles. We are trying to change that perception. Rats are very sociable, very intelligent, highly like-able creatures."
Their amazing success-rate, on both fronts, is why APOPO calls its sniffers "hero rats."
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