Most people would give no thought to the learning abilities of rats, let alone believe that they could actually be trained to save human lives. We like to have our heroes and villains in the animal kingdom, and while dogs are classed as caped crusaders, then rats are up there to be booed.
Dogs of course help us, using their remarkable senses to keep us safer. They have been regularly in the news discovering improvised explosive devices (IEDs) set to kill soldiers in Afghanistan, and they have also been shown to be able to sniff out various cancers too.
So even rat aficionados may be surprised to discover that these rodents have now proved themselves to be just as valuable as dogs in undertaking similar tasks. As we reveal in this issue, rats are using their remarkable senses to make people’s lives safer in Africa. They are helping to reduce the risk of children being crippled for life or killed when they are playing, by locating unexploded mines laid during past conflicts.
Small animals are controversially used for medical research, but in another remarkable twist to this story, it has also been possible to train these rats to detect cases of human tuberculosis by sniffing samples from patients. Interestingly, the inspiration behind these roles for rats has been a university researcher who had himself been a rat-keeper in his youth.
But are we becoming too influenced by the way that the general media portrays our pets? Holly Watcham believes this is the case, and having read her article, you may well agree with her. Yet if so, what can be done about this? That is the critical question!