Rats have an extraordinary sense of smell. In Cambodia, they are helping to sniff out dangerous landmines. It is the brainchild of Bart Weetjens, who, with his friend, Christophe Cox, co-founded APOPO. They call the trained rats: HeroRATs. ANA BLUE WING interviewed them both to learn more about the lives of these heroic creatures.
In the morning, we transport them to the field, where they work for 30 minutes each. They then return and play with the other rats. A rat’s day is pretty cool.
They even have their own adventure play cage.
Just like humans, rats must have off days. What happens if a rat is unwell?
If a rat does not greet us eagerly or is reluctant to leave their home cage, something is obviously wrong, so we will take a closer look or call a vet. We have a team dedicated to the welfare of the rats.
Bart, you mentioned in our last article that you bred rodents when you were younger. Having that experience must have made breeding the rats much easier...?
Well, yes, and no. They are actually quite solitary creatures. So you can’t just put a male and female together. They are quite particular about their mate, but of course, we figured it out and now have a smooth breeding system.
Just like humans, rats must have very particular food preferences. Is there a popular food among them all?
They will eat anything nutritional. There isn’t a HeroRAT that doesn’t like avocado (laughs). But there are individual preferences.
We reward the HeroRATs with bananas during training. In the pouches in their cheeks, they can fit a banana, but it is soft so can be digested without disrupting their performance.
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You must have learned quite a lot about the rats’ personalities over the time you have been breeding the rats. To what extent have you had to adapt the training to the individual?
They have a duty to find landmines without missing them, so if a rat runs a bit behind, we allow the rat more time to get up to speed. Just like humans, some rats are quick learners while others need some more encouragement.
We can determine, for example, how shy or adventurous a rat is. In other words, how suited they would be to work in an open field with many dangers versus in the lab helping to detect tuberculosis - this is the other work that the Hero RATs do.
This must also feed in with how the staff interacts with the rats...
That’s right. Bonds are created between trainer and rat. After the training, when the animals are unleashed, they will follow the trainers deliberately back to their travel cage. It's actually so beautiful to see how this human-animal interaction can work. It radiates harmony and wellbeing.
It’s really a unique relationship that you have with the rats. Hopefully, people can see how much you respect and look after the rats. On that note, do HeroRATs have birthdays, and how do you celebrate them?
Well, most of these birthdays also happen while working, so they get a lot of attention and a lot of affection from their trainers and special treats.
We recently celebrated the retirement of a rat. All the staff clapped as the rat came in. That rat is now playing in their home cage.
Photo of retirement ceremony table
People can come and see the rats at our visitor center in Siem Reap near the Angkor Wat temple. You can see the training live, chat with the trainers, and see the animals' impact.
Credit: Allan Staley
Photo of trainers showing rats to visitors at center
Bart, Christophe, Thank you so much. How can people support the work you are doing?
They can also adopt a rat and support us through the ANA BLUE WING Program. The program really helps us by subsidizing our flights so that we can focus our financial resources on our work.
With just a few clicks, individuals like you can support Changemakers like Bart and make a real difference in people's lives. By purchasing your plane ticket through BLUE WING (at no additional cost to you) or donating miles directly to a Changemaker of your choosing, you too can be involved in the solutions to the global problems affecting our world today.
Can you start by giving us some insight about what goes on behind the scenes? What is a day in the life of a HeroRAT like?