April 21, 2006

Rats Trained to Sniff Out Bombs and Mines

BOGOTA, Colombia -- Watch out Fido - your days on the force may be numbered. Out for your job are Lola and Espejo, two whiskered, red-eyed rats that police in Colombia are training to sniff out bombs and land mines.

The two rodents are part of an experimental six-rat squadron that police are preparing for dangerous missions to defuse the more than 100,000 land mines that litter Colombia's countryside after four decades of war between the government and leftist rebels.

Unlike dogs, rats weighing less than half a pound each and "don't trigger any explosions when they walk on a mine," said Col. Javier Cifuentes, director of the Sibate police academy, where basic training is taking place.

To earn their stripes, the rats have spent the past year undergoing a daily training regimen, wherein they are placed in a maze with C-4 explosives and other bomb-making materials. When they detect the target, they're rewarded with a cracker to nibble on and a few gentle caresses behind the ears.

The rats are able to locate the explosives 83 percent of the time, the trainers said. But they estimate it could be another six months before they reach their goal of a 100 percent success rate and the rats are pressed into active duty.

"At first they were shy and would bite, but now they're totally comfortable working with humans," said Jose German Pineda, one of the rat squad's trainers.

Cifuentes said he believes Colombia was the first country to use rats to conduct police work, though larger rodents he said were being employed for similar purposes in Sudan.

If the experiment succeeds, Colombia will be better off for it.

According to government statistics, the country has the largest number of land mine victims in the world - 1,070 in 2005, the rough equivalent of a victim every eight hours. Nearly a quarter of the victims result in deaths.

But the task of unearthing the mines won't be easy.

Even if the rats prove reliable bomb sniffers, they may not prove as loyal of a companion as German Shepherds. Another problem facing their handlers is recognizing the tiny rats' signals while staying a safe distance away.

One way around that dilemma may be Roborat. In an experiment financed by the U.S. Defense Department, neuroscience researchers in Brooklyn, New York have found a way to control rats' movements by remotely sending impulses to their brains via miniature, electronic backpacks strapped to their bodies.

"You need a pretty long leash to keep control of a rat," said Lee von Kraus, a PhD student at the SUNY Downstate Medical Center.


Associated Press writer Joshua Goodman contributed to this story.