CHARLESTON, SOUTH CAROLINA — Most people think of rats as dirty, disease-ridden creatures that should be avoided at all cost.

But not the folks at APOPO, a global nonprofit organization in Tanzania that has developed an innovative method of detecting landmines and tuberculosis by using African giant pouched rats' extraordinary sense of smell.

Saving lives

Ellie Cutright, who has loved rats all her life, works on the APOPO research team.

American researcher Ellie Cutright works with African giant pouched rats that are trained to detect landmines.

"There's a very negative connotation about rats, which is kind of sad," she said during a recent visit to her hometown of Charleston, South Carolina. "I was a child who had rats as a pet, so I got over that negative connotation."

Cutright had followed APOPO on Facebook for years when she noticed a job announcement during her last year of college and applied. "I never really thought I would get the job, but here we are," she beamed.

"I think rats are very intelligent, and they can be amazing animals," she said. "And the kind we work with are all very sweet, they like to be held and be handled, they like to interact with people, and they really like to work hard. They are really out to please you."

Amazing rats

The giant rats, which grow to about the size of a domestic cat, are born and bred at the organization's headquarters in Morogoro, Tanzania.

African giant pouched rats are trained in a click and rewards system to sniff out a tea egg infuser filled with TNT to eventually locate landmines. (APOPO/Courtesy)

Once they open their eyes — at around four or five weeks old — they are socialized to handle people and adjust to the environment around them. Training starts when they're weaned from their mother — at around 10 weeks old — with a click and reward system, "which means food, so they're very happy about that since they really like to eat," Cutright explained.

The landmine rats first train on a small table covered with soil where they are taught to sniff for tea eggs — much like the kind used to infuse tea — filled with TNT.

"When they approach that, they get the click and the food reward, so then they learn that the smell of this TNT means food," Cutright said. "And then slowly we stretch out the area that they're working in so they're running on a leash and they try to find the tea egg with the TNT inside."

Hero rats

Once the rats start working in the minefield and they find a landmine, they scratch on the ground to alert their handler, who then places a small marker at that spot. "He can then go over and safely remove the mine and get rid of it," Cutright said.

The rats work in minefields in Tanzania and are also sent to other countries around the world, where an estimated 110 million hidden landmines and other dangerous remnants of war are at risk of exploding.

Traditionally, landmine detection is done by humans and machines, but rats are more effective and cost-efficient, Cutright said.

African giant pouched rats like this one are specially trained at APOPO headquarters in Tanzania to detect landmines. (Picasa/Courtesy)

"They're really fast at finding mines," she added. "And they can cover a lot of ground very quickly."

Using a metal detector will pick up an assortment of random metal objects that are laying around, she said.

"Might be a soda cap or something that a metal detector will find, but the rats aren't going to pay any attention to that. They're only searching for the smell of the explosives," she added.

The rats are also easy to house and feed.

"They only eat fruits and vegetables that are grown locally, and the training takes about a year, so there's not such a long time that we have to house them, to pay for them and pay for the training," Cutright said.

While the rodents are too lightweight to set off a mine, they are still risking their lives. So these giant, pouched rats are nicknamed "HeroRATS."

To date, these diligent heroes have detected more than 107,000 landmines and unexploded ordnances, freeing almost a million people from the threat of explosives. "And opening up the land for the people who are living in that area to farm, or to build their house," Cutright said.

College of Charleston

Cutright started working at APOPO after graduating with a degree in psychology from the College of Charleston, in South Carolina

Cutright said her school prepared her well for her job in research.

"I took a psychology course my first semester there, and I just really fell in love with it," she said. "I was really excited by all the possibilities and by what I could do with that sort of degree."

She credits her psychology professor, Chad Galuska, for nurturing her interest in the field.  

"I worked in a lab with him for two years and we worked with rats. So that's kind of where I got my start in the rat research world," she said.

Cutright caught up with Galuska on the college campus during a recent visit, and excitedly talked about her work in Africa.

Galuska said, "The preparation that she received here in the areas of classical conditioning and operant conditioning and training animals to do things, she was able to take out of the classroom, out of the lab and apply them in a way to actually save people's lives."

But he also acknowledged that her success has something to do with her own smarts.

"Her critical thinking skills are some of the best I've seen here at the college," he said. "And also, she is fiercely independent. From the time she started working in my lab, she wanted to do everything on her own. And that was somewhat new to me, because I was used to mentoring students in a different way."

STEM studies

College of Charleston school president Andrew Hsu is proud of Cutright and what she has accomplished, both in school and in her job, and said she is a good example of the kind of success stories his students and graduates have experienced.

African giant pouched rats are trained to detect landmines by using their extraordinary sense of smell.

"We prepare them not only with the sciences they need in order to succeed, but we give them a well-rounded liberal arts education so that they have the ability of critical thinking, creativity, collaboration and communication," he said. "All of those [skills] are needed to be successful as a global citizen."

One of the key missions at the school, he said, is to encourage more women to enter STEM-related fields, and he is working hard to achieve that goal.

"We're living in a global economy, whether you like it or not, and it's becoming a global village," he said. "Global fluency is extremely important for the future generation."

"So we're trying very hard to make sure that our students have not only the language fluency, but also the cultural fluency as well as the global experience throughout their four years of education," Hsu added.

Cutright said she never thought that her dynamic academic training, together with her own natural drive, would take her all the way to Africa, but she's happy it did.

She's using those abilities every day, doing research and helping to educate people about the Hero Rats she's come to adore.

"I think the work that APOPO does is really important in kind of spreading the word that rats are not just a pest," she said. "They really are heroes. And they show us every day that they are worthy of that name."