Rats get a bad rap. These landmine-sniffing rodents are helping change that

You should clap when you see a rat, not shreik, according to wildlife care specialist Cari Inserra. While the creatures are most commonly considered to be pests, Inserra wants people to know that rats are actually saving lives across the world.

African giant pouched rats can detect mines, sniff out diseases and prevent animal trafficking

A rat in a harness examines a metal ball.

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You should clap — not shriek — when you see a rat, according to wildlife care specialist Cari Inserra. While the creatures are most commonly considered to be pests, shewants people to know that some rats are actually saving lives across the world.

"It's really changing minds because most people's first instinct is, 'Oh my gosh, a rat,'" Inserra, with the San Diego Zoo, told Matt Galloway on The Current.

"We're able to highlight how smart they are and the great work that they're doing."

The San Diego Zoo was given rats from APOPO, a Belgian non-profit group working in Tanzania to train African giant pouched rats.The rats are able to detect mines, sniff out smuggling operations, and even smell diseases.

Inserra works with a rat named Runa, who shows off her sniffing skills at the zoo to people visiting. And Runa is pretty good at it, Inserra says.

"She's 100 per cent accurate. She's never wrong when she is searching for her target scent," she said.

A woman with a microphone has a toucan sitting on her hand.

Super sniffers

Not all heroes wear capes. These rats wear collars as they perform all sorts of important tasks, such as sniffing out illegally trafficked pangolin scales, which are also known as scaly anteaters.

Rats can be stationed at shipping ports and lifted up to the vents of shipping crates by little rat elevators.

"Those shipping crates are really big and it takes a lot of effort and labour … to get those open," said Inserra.

"So the fact that they can just work on their target scent, detecting it just through the vent … that's a great way to save time and be more efficient."

And that's not the only job they can do more efficiently than humans. In Ethiopia, Mozambique and Tanzania, rats have proven to be good at detecting tuberculosis.

"Rats that have learned to target on the tuberculosis disease can actually positively and negatively go through a whole bunch of samples much faster than a human lab technician," said Inserra.

But perhaps their most impressive feat is detecting landmines. APOPO has rats and handlers in a number of countries, including Vietnam, Angola and Mozambique, detecting and removing rats.

WATCH | Big rats help rid Cambodia of deadly landmines:

The rats can go across a field and notify their human handlers when they sniff the TNT of a landmine. The GPS coordinates are then logged by the handlers.

"The rats are very lightweight since they're only three pounds, which is large for a rodent, but much smaller than a dog," said Inserra.

Since it takes about 4.5 kilograms of weight to set off the mine, the trained rats can do it in a safe way.

"Those fields or those tracts of lands can be made safe for the local community to use this agriculture. It's much safer for the wildlife to walk through. So saving human and animal lives," said Inserra.

A rat nose sticks out of a cage.

Bad reputation

While African giant pouched rats may be doing a lot for the rat brand, some of their relatives are making it hard to give the rats love. A 2016 study from the University of British Columbia found that a rise in the rat population would put human health at risk, as rats often carry diseases.

In New York City, Kathleen Corradi was hired as the city's 'Rat Czar' earlier this month, with the sole focus of eliminating rodents from the city.

Mayor Eric Adams called the rats "public enemy number one," and that, "the rats are going to hate Kathy, but we're excited to have her leading this important effort."

"Rats are a symptom of systemic issues, including sanitation, health, housing and economic justice," Corradi said in a press release put out by the city.

"Rats, and the conditions that help them thrive, will no longer be tolerated. No more dirty curbs, unmanaged spaces or brazen burrowing."

But not all rats can be painted with the same brush. Inserra admits that when they show off the rats at the zoo, people are initially put off — but Runa quickly wins people over.

"Everything plays a role in nature, right? And so that's another aspect of what we were hoping to communicate, is that, you know, we need to live together with all of the species on our planet," said Inserra.

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