August 2, 2007: Colombian
de-mining experts have found the key to using rats, rather than dogs, for
detecting mines. It involves locking up the rats in the same cage with a cat.
While rats have just as
sensitive a sense of smell, and are less likely to set off a mine, they are
much more jittery than dogs. While a dog can be trained to halt and stay still
when, and where, it has sniffed out a mine, rats will only do that in training.
When taken to an unfamiliar location to search for mines, the trained rat will
be too nervous, and fearful of being attacked, to be still when it has sniffed
out a mine. The solution. Colombian researchers found, was to lock rats up in
cages with cats (who are trained to be calm around rats, and have their claws
covered just to be sure). The rats soon become comfortable around one of their
primary enemies, and that enables them to calmly search for mines in new
surroundings. The rats, however, must be kept away from normal cats, otherwise
the newfound fearlessness around their natural enemy will get the rats killed.
Because leftist rebels have
been using landmines heavily to protect their remote bases, and to terrorize
civilians, Colombia has become the most mined nation in the world. Last year,
there were 1,108 people, mostly civilians, who were killed or injured by these
mines. The police is in charge of de-mining an area after the rebels have been
driven away, and it was police researchers who developed the methods for
training rats to help.