In the African country of Tanzania, a giant rat scampers along a dusty field. Almost the size of a cat, he cannot see well and relies mostly on his strong sense of smell. Suddenly he stops, sniffs excitedly, and begins to scratch the ground. He has discovered a mine!
This rat is a member of the HeroRats - a special group of carefully-trained rats that finds land mines and other explosives that have been buried for years but will explode if stepped on. Every year, about 800 people are killed and 1200 injured by land mines. Millions of acres of land lie unused because people risk their lives if they walk there. Traditional methods of finding land mines are to use metal detectors and search dogs, but metal detectors are slow and cannot distinguish between a mine and a tin can. This is where the HeroRats come in. Smaller than search dogs, they are easy to keep and transport. The rats are too light to set off the land mines, but large enough to be easily seen in the field where they work.
One of the HeroRats is named Ararat. He quickly progressed through the training stages, passed a difficult test, and is now one of the star members of the team. Wearing a little harness and working with two handlers, he sweeps methodically through the field, scratching whenever he detects a mine. Every time he successfully finds a mine, he gets a reward - a bite of banana or a peanut. One HeroRat can clear about 200 square feet an hour - an area that would take a human with a metal detector over forty hours to clear. After a few hours on the job, Ararat goes home to bed. (Because the rats are nocturnal, Ararat works only during the morning, and his ears and tail are coated with sunscreen to protect against skin cancer.)
Miles away, in a lab in Tanzania, one of Ararat’s cousins is also working to protect people. Julius is a member of a group of rats who find tuberculosis in people. Tuberculosis kills many more people in Africa than land mines and is difficult to detect. A lab technician must look at samples of saliva from suspected patients under a microscope. It is a slow process and does not always work to catch the disease. But Julius and his co-workers work much faster than people could and can identify even slight traces of tuberculosis. Julius works in a special cage where trays of saliva samples are slid in front of him. Quickly smelling each one, he identifies suspicious samples by sniffing and scratching. These samples are then tested in a lab. The rats find about 44 percent more tuberculosis cases than the lab technicians do. In a country where most rats are hated and eaten for dinner, these HeroRats are saving lives and showing just what a rat can do if given the chance!