Narcotics officers in Colombia are preparing to launch a new program in which specially trained rats are deployed to alert human handlers to the presence of land mines, Times Bogota bureau chief Chris Kraul reports.
Hundreds of thousands of mines have been buried in remote areas of Colombia by leftist rebels and drug traffickers; nearly 700 people died from mine-related injuries in the country last year.
The program is modeled on a similar one in Africa that utilizes the sniffing skills of African giant pouched rats that are native to the area rather than the more familiar white rats used in Colombia.
Rats have several advantages over sniffer dogs in the field of mine detection: They weigh significantly less than their canine counterparts (a major benefit because it means they can step on a land mine without detonating it), their upkeep is cheaper and, since rats aren't as social as dogs, they are less likely to be distracted by other animals in the field.
"The more I work with rats, the more I am amazed at what they can do," Luisa Fernanda Mendez, a civilian behavioral veterinarian in charge of the project, told The Times.
-- Lindsay Barnett
Photo: Police officer Henry Munoz rewards a rat being trained to sniff out explosives. Credit: Colombian National Police