Rats fitted with tiny backpacks are being trained to help earthquake survivors

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MOROGORO, Tanzania — A special group of rats is learning to crawl into earthquake debris wearing tiny backpacks, allowing rescue teams can talk to survivors. It may sound like something out of the children’s movie “The Rescuers,” but a non-profit in Africa is hoping this real-life project can save lives around the world.

Research scientist Dr. Donna Kean is spearheading the innovative project. So far, the group has trained seven rats, taking only two weeks to get them up to speed. At the moment, the rats are using homemade prototype backpacks containing a microphone, which they carry into mock debris.

Specialized backpacks containing microphones, video gear, and location trackers will be created to allow rescue teams to communicate with survivors during real earthquakes. Kean has been based in Morogoro, Tanzania, East Africa for one year, working with non-profit organization APOPO on a project named “Hero Rats.”

The rodents will get the chance to work in the field when they travel to Turkey, which is prone to earthquakes, to work with a search and rescue team, GAE.

Rescue rats
Dr Donna Kean with Jo the rat. (Credit: APOPO)

Rats get a bad reputation

Dr. Kean, who studied ecology at Strathclyde University before going on to do an MA at the University of Kent and a PhD at Stirling University, was originally interested in primate behavior. However, she was fascinated by how quickly rats can learn certain skills and says it’s a misconception that they are unhygienic.

She describes them as “sociable” creatures and believes their work will save lives. Altogether, 170 rats are receiving training for projects involving landmines and even tuberculosis patients. Researchers also hope rats can learn to sniff out Brucellosis, an infectious disease which impacts livestock. The rats are so nimble that they don’t set off a landmine and their agility makes them perfect for use in disaster zones.

“Rats would be able to get into small spaces to get to victims buried in rubble,” Dr. Kean says in a statement, according to SWNS. “We have not been in a real situation yet, we have got a mock debris site.”

“When we get the new backpacks we will be able to hear from where we are based and where the rat is, inside the debris,” the scientist adds. “We have the potential to speak to victims through the rat.”

The rodents are trained to respond to a beep, which calls them back to the base.

Rescue rats
Rat trainer Mushi rewards Daniel the rat. (Credit: APOPO)

“A colleague is a seamstress, she makes the backpacks, she’s very talented,” Dr. Kean continues. “We are getting custom-made backpacks which will have video recorders, microphones and a location transmitter.”

Are rats the new search-and-rescue dogs?

“It’s quite unusual. They are so agile, they are so good at moving through all kinds of different environments. They are perfect for search and rescue-type work.”

Kean add that the animals can live off anything and are very good at surviving in different environments.

“Which just shows how suitable they are for search and rescue work,” she adds.

Dogs have been used for similar purposes for years, but rats have an advantage due to their small size and flexibility.

“They are very trainable, the first stage is to train them to come back to base point – they respond to a beep,” Kean tells SWNS. “There is a misconception they are dirty and unhygienic, they are well looked after with us, they are sociable animals. We hope it will be implemented, we are partnered with a search and rescue team in Turkey.”

“It would just be a case of as soon as an earthquake happens, arranging the transport,” the researcher concludes. “We are the only organization working with this species, there are other organizations training dogs. We hope it will save lives, the results are really promising.”

South West News Service writer Sarah Ward contributed to this report.


  1. Thank you for portraying rats in a good light! 🙂 However, please consider editing this article to actually NAME this heroic rat species. They’re Gambian pouched rats, a.k.a. African giant pouched rats. They’re not well-known, so this article could’ve been a GREAT method of getting the word out about them.

    In addition, despite the fact they somewhat resemble the common rats most folks are familiar with, Gambian pouched rats aren’t even in the same family – strange but true! This explains why they’re much larger, & have different ears and facial/head structure. Along w/ being a rodent lover, I’m also a former journalist, so I hope you’ll take my corrections in the spirit of simply wanting to help improve an article, & help get interesting/valuable information out to the readers.
    – Shari in California 🙂

  2. Those rats are HUGE! I have always thought that rats always get so much undeserved criticism. My nephew used to keep them as pets, and I always thought that they were sweet.

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