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Rats to the rescue: Rodents are trained to enter the earthquake rubble to find survivors

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Scientists train rats to find earthquake survivors while carrying small backpacks with built-in microphones so rescue teams can locate and talk to them.

Research scientist Dr. Donna Kean, 33, from Glasgow, spent the past year working in Morogoro, Tanzania for non-profit organization APOPO on the project entitled ‘Hero Rats’.

The team is building specialized backpacks with built-in microphones, video equipment and rat-mountable location trackers so rescue teams can communicate with survivors during real-world earthquakes.

Currently, scientists are sending them to fake rubble to simulate a rescue response to a natural disaster.

Scientists train rats to find earthquake survivors while carrying small backpacks with built-in microphones so rescue teams can locate and talk to them

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

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

Kean said: “Rats could get into confined spaces to get to victims buried under the rubble.

“We haven’t been in a real situation yet, we have a simulated debris site.”

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

“Once we have the new backpacks, we can hear where we are and where the rat is in the rubble,” she said.

“We have the potential to talk to victims through the rat,” Kean added.

One of her colleagues, a seamstress, makes the backpacks.

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

The rats will soon be going to Turkey, where they will have the opportunity to work in the field.

The country is prone to earthquakes, and the GAE search and rescue team agrees to bring the rat squad to justice.

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

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

Kean, who studied ecology at Strathclyde University before doing an MA at the University of Kent and a PhD at Stirling University, said she was originally interested in primate behavior.

Kean, who studied ecology at Strathclyde University before doing an MA at the University of Kent and a PhD at Stirling University, said she was originally interested in primate behavior.

TAPOPO is the only organization working with rats, while other groups focus on training dogs

“They’re so agile, they can move through all kinds of different environments,” says Kean. “They are perfect for search and rescue work. They can live on anything’

Venance Kiria, left, Jo the rat, and Dr Donna Kean, right, are pictured.  The team builds specialized backpacks with built-in microphones, video equipment and rat-mountable location trackers so rescue teams can communicate with survivors during real earthquakes

Venance Kiria, left, Jo the rat, and Dr Donna Kean, right, are pictured. The team builds specialized backpacks with built-in microphones, video equipment and rat-mountable location trackers so rescue teams can communicate with survivors during real earthquakes

But the project is expanding and training rats for increasingly complex tasks.

Problems the researchers think trained rats could help include clearing land mines, tuberculosis and the detection of brucellosis, a contagious disease that affects livestock.

Rats are agile and light enough that they are unlikely to launch a landmine.

Kean, who studied ecology at Strathclyde University before doing an MA at the University of Kent and a PhD at Stirling University, said she was originally interested in primate behavior.

She said it is a misconception that rats are unsanitary and describes them as social creatures that can be quickly trained to save lives.

“They’re so agile, they can move through all kinds of different environments,” says Kean. “They are perfect for search and rescue work. They can live on anything.’

TAPOPO is the only organization that works with rats, while other groups focus on training dogs.

Rats have an advantage over dogs because of their small size and flexibility.

“We hope it will save lives, the results are promising,” she concluded.

So far, seven rats have been trained, and it only takes the scientists two weeks to get them up to speed

So far, seven rats have been trained, and it only takes the scientists two weeks to get them up to speed

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

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

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

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

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