Though it may sound like the plot of science fiction film, Bart Weetjens is giving rats a new image by training them to save lives in the death-defying business of mine detection.
“We sometimes encounter resistance, but generally after people have learned about the work or seen the rats in action, their perceptions change.”
As an adult, Bart studied product development engineering at Antwerp University, and it was while developing a soybean-threshing machine for rural communities in the Democratic Republic of Congo that he became aware of the threat posed by remnant landmines in Africa. Hundreds of thousands of people were killed or severed from their homes and food sources every year, devastating communities and limiting development and commerce. Bart began working on a new project that would help with the reduction of landmines — one that would bring the beloved animals of his childhood back into his life again.
The available methods of landmine removal are challengingly slow and astronomically costly, including the use of mine detection dogs, which are expensive, bonded to one trainer, and heavy enough to set off the landmines. Bart’s early experience raising rats gave him the idea to substitute them for dogs. “Training a mine detection rat can cost one-third to one-fifth the amount of training a mine detection dog,” he says, though he affirms that they see “mine detection rats and dogs as complimentary tools in the de-mining toolbox.”
Moving his operation from a testing facility in Belgium to Tanzania, he founded Apopo and successfully trained the native African Giant Pouched rat — Chihuahua-like in stature — to sniff out explosives. Though the rodents were met with some hesitance, Bart has persevered in what he describes as a “role [that] is challenging people’s perceptions and opening their eyes to alternative detection methods for limited-resource settings.” With both impressive speed and extraordinary affordability, the proof is in the results: Bart’s rats have opened nearly half a million square meters of land. He has also trained the aptly named “HeroRATs” to identify tuberculosis, sparing people injury, illness, and death with one quick sniff.