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A Rat Named Magawa Is Being Honored For His Heroic And Life-Saving Work

by Karen Belz
Karen Belz has written for sites such as Bustle, HelloGiggles, Romper, and So Yummy. She's the mom of a sassy toddler and drinks an alarming amount of Sugar-Free Red Bull in order to keep up with her.

When thinking of a heroic rat, your mind might first go to Remy, the chef rat in Disney’s hit Ratatouille.

Next, likely Pizza Rat — otherwise known as the rat who scored a full slice in New York City. But, there’s a new rat in town, and he’s saving lives.

His name is Magawa, and he’s an African giant pouched rat. He lives in Cambodia, and he’s responsible for helping clear undetonated land mines, which is quite a scary job. But he’s quite good at it — and has already made a huge difference in his community.

According to Today, Magawa has already cleared out 39 land mines and 28 items of unexploded ordnance throughout the past five years.

He was trained by a nonprofit called APOPO, an organization that works with animals to help detect both land mines and tuberculosis. The organization believes its rats can help solve a bunch of global concerns.

Magawa’s official title with the organization is “HeroRAT.” And, the title fits. It’s out to prove that rats can do so much more than simply detect pizza on the subway. In fact, all due to the power of scent, these rats are changing the world.

Land mines can be a major safety issue for communities, especially in Cambodia. Today reports that there’ve been  64,000 casualties throughout the country, with 40,000 people losing limbs due to exploding land mines. But thanks to rats like Magawa, things are slowly becoming safer.

So, how does Magawa do it? It’s all about using his sense of smell. He finds the land mines by sniffing out the chemicals that are used to form them. Once he locates one, he knows to tell his handler of its exact location, so it can be safely removed and destroyed.

According to a press release, Magawa is far more capable of finding these land mines than a human would be. It notes that he “completely ignores any scrap metal lying around and is so much faster at finding land mines than people.” It may make you think twice about the next rat you meet.

“He can search the area of a tennis court in 30 minutes, something that would take a human with a metal detector up to four days,” the release also stated. “On a daily basis, HeroRAT Magawa’s work is life-saving and life-changing and has a direct impact on the men, women and children in the communities in which he works.” Who would have thought?

Finding land mines is actually Magawa’s purpose in life. His size makes him the perfect creature to to locate the land mines without risking any sort of injury. Plus, he was trained to do the job since he was young. His breed was more or less bred to help the community.

And of course, the community had recognized his goodwill. On September 25, Magawa was given a civilian award for animal bravery by the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals. He’s the first rat to receive this prestigious award, but who knows? He might not be the last, especially if the mission of his nonprofit continues to grow.

The PDSA reports that there are far more land mines yet to discover. Approximately 80 million are still active and hiding, waiting to injure a civilian. So, Magawa and his team’s work have yet to be done with their mission. So, Magawa may not be settling into early retirement anytime soon.

Curious about how long it takes to train a rat to do a job like this? “Magawa would have been field-ready in just nine months,” the PDSA writes. “He would have been trained using a clicker (and lots of tasty rewards) when he got near to something with the scent of the explosive chemicals used in landmines. Magawa passed all his tests with flying colours, and it wasn’t long until he was sent to work.”

So, he was head of the class — and proved that some rats are just better at the job than others. “For every landmine or unexploded remnant he finds, he eradicates the risk of death or serious injury in locations already suffering significant hardship,” writes the PDSA. That said, a retirement for Magawa will happen some day.

The PDSA writes that eventually, Magawa will retire to his “home cage.” “He’ll then spend his time playing and relaxing!” the group writes. It’s amazing to know that he’s tied to so many success stories. He likely isn’t even aware of the good work he’s doing — he’s just a hard worker who graduated at the head of the class.

“Every task requires a combination of assets from APOPO’s comprehensive mine action tool box that includes survey, metal detectors, and machines,” wrote APOPO. “However it is the Mine Detection Rats that sets us apart from conventional methods.” In case you were wondering, the rats it employs also get the best care.

“Throughout [training] they are extremely well cared for, receiving an excellent diet, regular exercise, much personal attention and scheduled playtime, as well as weekly care from a vet and onsite animal behaviourist,” the website states. Socialization begins at just 4 weeks old. At this stage, each rat becomes familiar with the scientists and handlers, and feels at ease in their presence.

But there’s also floor training and field training. The work that the rats put into their detection is serious. “Before being deployed to a real minefield, the rats must pass a blind test where only the head supervisor knows where the mines are,” the nonprofit explains. “To pass they have to find all target land mines in a 400 [square meter] area, making no more than one false indication. Once they pass they can graduate as bona fide HeroRATs!”

Magawa is not only a brave rat. He’s an example that animals can do amazing things. Magawa saved the lives of so many civilians, and his friends who are also in training will save even more. If you’re moved by his mission, you can adopt a rat like Magawa on the APOPO website.