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Clicker Trained Rats Make Headlines

On May 18, readers of the New York Times were treated to a front-page story on mine-sniffing Gambian giant pouched rats. The reporter, Michael Wines, traveled to Mozambique to discover the latest breakthrough in mine detection technology: a squad of rats, outfitted in tiny harnesses and hitched to 10-yard clotheslines. When the rats catch the scent of TNT, the give-away for a buried landmine, they deliberately scratch the earth.

Joao Silva for The New York Times:
After locating a land mine, a
pouched rat got a piece of banana.

How are the rats trained so reliably? Clicker training, of course. Wines reports that, "Her trainer, Kassim Mgaza, snaps a metal clicker twice, and Wanjiro [the rat] waddles to him for her reward—a mouthful of banana and an affectionate pet." The trainer explains, "TNT means food. TNT means clicking sound, means food. That's how we communicate with them." When fully trained, the rats sniff out a mine, then sit and scratch at the spot until they are rewarded with food. A human explosive expert then destroys the mine.

Now that a foolproof method of training them has been utilized, the rats seem to offer numerous advantages over dogs and metal detectors in locating underground mines. They are, Wines reports, "Abundant, cheap, and easily transported. At three pounds, they are too light to detonate mines accidentally. They can sift the bouquet of land-mine aromas far better than any machine." And as long as a food reward is desired, they keep working.

The rats' skill and reliability astonishes even the experts. In a test in an area that was heavily mined during Mozambique's 17-year civil war, teams of three giant pouched rats found every one of 20 live mines in a previously unsurveyed 4,300-square-foot swatch of land. Trainer Judy Cox says that while it's fun to work with the rats, the importance of training them well is not a game. "You will be following your rats through a minefield," she said. "You have to be 100 percent sure of your rats."

At KPCT, we're immensely gratified to see that clicker training is being put to such worthy use. The Times reports "The International Campaign to Ban Land Mines estimates that 100 million mines have been laid worldwide, from antipersonnel and antitank mines hidden underground to above-ground mines triggered by tripwires." These mines must be defused, and clicker trained rats can help find them all.

Article One: NY Times article on Gambian giant pouched rats:

More information on landmines:

Link One

About the author
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Gale Pryor is a writer and editor at Pen and Press, an editorial services and consulting company. Her writing credits include Parenting Magazine, Mothering Magazine, Teaching Dogs, National Public Radio, and two bestselling books.

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