Rats to the rescue: Rodents are being trained to go into earthquake debris to find survivors


Scientists are training rats to find earthquake survivors while wearing tiny backpacks with inbuilt microphones so rescue teams can locate and speak with them.

Research scientist Dr Donna Kean, 33, from Glasgow, has been working in Morogoro, Tanzania over the past year for non-profit organisation APOPO on the project titled ‘Hero Rats’.

The team is constructing specialist backpacks with in-built microphones, video gear and location trackers able to be fitted on to rats to allow rescue teams to communicate with survivors during real earthquakes.

Currently, scientists are sending them into mock debris to simulate a rescue response to a natural disaster. 

Scientists are training rats to find earthquake survivors while wearing tiny backpacks with inbuilt microphones so rescue teams can locate and speak with them

The rats will soon be sent to Turkey, where they will get the chance to work in the field, with search and rescue team GAE agreeing to trial the rat squad

The rats will soon be sent to Turkey, where they will get the chance to work in the field, with search and rescue team GAE agreeing to trial the rat squad

Kean said: ‘Rats would be able to get into small spaces to get to victims buried in rubble.

‘We have not been in a real situation yet, we have got a mock debris site.’

The rodents are trained to respond to a beep, which calls them back to the base.

‘When we get the new backpacks we will be able to hear from where we are based and where the rat is, inside the debris,’ she said.

‘We have the potential to speak to victims through the rat,’ Kean added. 

One of her colleagues, a seamstress, is making the backpacks.

So far seven rats have been trained, with the scientists needing only two weeks to get them up to speed.

The rats will soon be sent to Turkey, where they will get the chance to work in the field.

The country is prone to earthquakes, with search and rescue team GAE agreeing to trial the rat squad.

Dr Donna Kean is pictured with Jo the rat. Donna has been based in Morogoro, Tanzania, East Africa, for one year, working with non-profit organisation APOPO for the project 'Hero Rats'

Dr Donna Kean is pictured with Jo the rat. Donna has been based in Morogoro, Tanzania, East Africa, for one year, working with non-profit organisation APOPO for the project ‘Hero Rats’

Kean, who studied ecology at Strathclyde University before going on to do an MA at the University of Kent and a PhD at Stirling University, said she was originally interested in primate behaviour

Kean, who studied ecology at Strathclyde University before going on to do an MA at the University of Kent and a PhD at Stirling University, said she was originally interested in primate behaviour 

'They are so agile, they are so good at moving through all kinds of different environments,' said Kean. 'They are perfect for search and rescue-type work. They can live off anything'

TAPOPO is the only organisation working with rats, with other groups focusing on training dogs

‘They are so agile, they are so good at moving through all kinds of different environments,’ said Kean. ‘They are perfect for search and rescue-type work. They can live off anything’

Venance Kiria, left, Jo the rat , and Dr Donna Kean, right, are pictured. The team is constructing specialist backpacks with in-built microphones, video gear and location trackers able to be fitted on to rats to allow rescue teams to communicate with survivors during real earthquakes

Venance Kiria, left, Jo the rat , and Dr Donna Kean, right, are pictured. The team is constructing specialist backpacks with in-built microphones, video gear and location trackers able to be fitted on to rats to allow rescue teams to communicate with survivors during real earthquakes

But the project is expanding, training rats for evermore complex tasks.

Problems the researchers believes trained rats can help with include landmine clearing, tuberculosis, and detection of brucellosis, an infectious disease which impacts livestock.

Rats are nimble and light enough that they are unlikely to set off a landmine.  

Kean, who studied ecology at Strathclyde University before going on to do an MA at the University of Kent and a PhD at Stirling University, said she was originally interested in primate behaviour.

She said it is a misconception that rats are unhygienic, describing them as sociable creates which can be quickly trained to help save lives.

‘They are so agile, they are so good at moving through all kinds of different environments,’ said Kean. ‘They are perfect for search and rescue-type work. They can live off anything.’

TAPOPO is the only organisation working with rats, with other groups focusing on training dogs.

Rats have an advantage over dogs due to their small size and flexibility.

‘We hope it will save lives, the results are really promising,’ she concluded.

So far seven rats have been trained, with the scientists needing only two weeks to get them up to speed

So far seven rats have been trained, with the scientists needing only two weeks to get them up to speed

Food reward syringes are used to feed the rats about to be sent into earthquake zones

Food reward syringes are used to feed the rats about to be sent into earthquake zones

The mock debris site used to train the rats is pictured. Rats have an advantage over dogs due to their small size and flexibility

The mock debris site used to train the rats is pictured. Rats have an advantage over dogs due to their small size and flexibility



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