If you’re going to build your nonprofit around a rodent, it’s crucial to select just the right rodent for the job. For Apopo, our current Human Rights beneficiary, that rodent—the HeroRAT—is the African giant pouched rat.
So how did Apopo come to select these specific rats to detect land mines and tuberculosis?
The Founding Idea
The idea was not accidental—from the beginning, Apopo founder Bart Weetjens, a rat owner himself, was certain his beloved creatures were up for the job. According to Apopo’s own foundation story, Weetjens was reading an article about using gerbils as mine detectors. He made the jump to rats, having owned them and trusting their intelligence and availability, and set out to make it happen. It was a contact of his, Professor Ron Verhagen of the University of Antwerp, an expert on rodents, who first suggested the African giant pouched rat. Verhagen stated the rats had a long life and originated from the area Weetjens wanted to work in, so they would not be a burden on the area.
A Bit About the HeroRATs
The African giant pouched rat, also known as the Gambian pouched rat, is indeed indigenous to Tanzania, where Apopo is headquartered. The rats range across most of sub-Saharan Africa and can often grow up to three feet in length (including their tails).
They’re omnivorous animals, but prefer palm fruits, which you’ll notice in many of Apopo’s pictures of the animals in training. The pouches are important to their eating habits—the rats store food in their cheek pouches while gathering food on their nightly runs.
Two of the more important characteristics of the African giant pouched rat, for Apopo’s sake, are that the animals do not have great eyesight, instead relying on their impressive sense of smell—which is how they are trained in mine and tuberculosis detection. Additionally, the animals are very social and, in the wild, live in large colonies. Both are important in training the animals for their lifesaving tasks as HeroRATs.
A HeroRAT Is Born This Way
After years of trying, Apopo now breeds their own African giant pouched rats, and they start their training at just four weeks old, learning to socialize with people and get used to the stimuli around them.
From there, the rat’s exceptional sense of smell is honed, as they are conditioned with a clicker and given food as a reward when they find a target scent (either TNT or tuberculosis). The rats have to be very discerning—they’ll be tested over and over again until they are accredited and can move on to working in the field with their pet humans and be certified HeroRATs.
Apopo took one man’s love of a childhood pet and used it to tackle a worldwide problem, all while making use of a natural species and innovative science—we couldn’t imagine a better fit for Foundation Beyond Belief.