LOOK: These Trained Rats Carrying Backpacks Could Help Rescue Earthquake Survivors

by Caitlin Berard
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(Photo credit should read /AFP via Getty Images)

The human-animal bond dates back thousands of years, to the first domestication of animals in the Stone Age. Since then, animals and humans have developed a symbiotic connection in which humans protect and assist wild animals when given the opportunity, and animals return the favor.

This, of course, isn’t true across the board, for either animals or humans. But all manner of wild and domesticated animals, from dogs to dolphins to horses, have been indispensable to humans through the millennia. Even rats, widely considered among the most detestable vermin, have performed otherwise impossible tasks in the service of humans.

In addition to detecting land mines (don’t worry, they’re too light to see them off), rats are now being trained to save earthquake victims. How? Well, it starts with a tiny backpack.

APOPO, the same organization that trained rats for landmine detection, is fitting rats with miniature backpacks and training them to scurry through collapsed buildings in search of survivors.

According to the researchers in charge of the project, rats are the ideal candidate for such a task, as they’re adventurous, small enough to fit through otherwise impenetrable cracks, and have an excellent sense of smell. Not to mention, as the land mine projects have proven, they’re highly amenable to training.

“Rats are typically quite curious and like to explore – and that is key for search and rescue,” Donna Kean, behavioral research scientist and leader of the project, explained to CNN.

How Researchers Train Rescue Rats

The rats aren’t ready for deployment quite yet, but they’re deep into extensive training. To train them, researchers take them into a simulated disaster zone. Equipped with high-tech backpacks, the rats first locate the target person in an empty room. From there, they pull a switch on the pack that triggers a beeper and return to base for a treat.

The backpack itself is equipped with a video camera, a two-way microphone, and a location transmitter. With these tools, first responders can communicate with earthquake survivors via the rats. “Together with the backpack and the training, the rats are incredibly useful for search and rescue,” Kean explained.

According to Donna Kean, it takes nine months to a year to train each rat. After the rats master the first phase of their training, they move on to more “real world scenarios”. In this stage, the rats must navigate “multiple floors of a collapsed building” to find the faux victims.

There’s still plenty of work to go before the rats are ready for real-life situations. Researchers have already managed to make the rats comfortable with backpacks and find fake victims, however. There’s no doubt the tiny saviors will be navigating collapsed buildings and rescuing victims in no time.

“Even if our rats find just one survivor at a debris site, I think we would be happy to know it’s made a difference somewhere,” said Kean.

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