Land Mine Detection Rat Receives the Animal Equivalent to the Distinguished Service Cross

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Composite by Kenna Milaski/Coffee or Die Magazine.

Communities in war-stricken countries are frequent victims of hidden land mines that were never recovered. A Tanzanian-based nonprofit known as Apopo has trained its animals to detect land mines since the early 1990s, and added tuberculosis in 2002. The HeroRATS campaign launched in 2005 to spread awareness of the rats’ capabilities in safely identifying explosives. There are an estimated 80 million hidden land mines in the world today.

Magawa, an African giant pouched rat, was bred and trained by Apopo to sniff out and identify the chemical compounds of TNT. Since Magawa and other trained rats like him ignore metal and other scrap found in minefields, they are considered the fastest “tools” in the bomb-sniffing arsenal. Their noses are 96 times more efficient than conventional methods of detection.

“Apopo started after an analysis of the land mine problem showed that, in fact, the detection of land mines was the most expensive and tedious part of the problem,” said co-founder Christophe Cox. “That’s why we came up with the idea of using rats, because rats are fast and they can screen an area of 200 square meters in half an hour; something which would take a manual de-miner four days.”

Besides Magawa’s discriminating sense of smell that is unmatched by humans, his lightweight body also will not detonate pressure-plate land mines. Apopo trains the rats using a clicker system that rewards positive actions with treats — Magawa’s favorites being bananas and peanuts. They then patrol a training field wearing a harness attached to a line just above their head. When they achieve 100% efficiency, they are ready for the real thing, searching for land mines in countries such as Tanzania, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Angola, Colombia, Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam.

The People’s Dispensary of Sick Animals, better known as PDSA, is the United Kingdom’s leading veterinary charity. It also recognizes extraordinary animals for their devotion to duty and heroism.

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Magawa is the first rat to be recognized by PDSA in the more than 75-year history of its animal awards program. Photo courtesy of Apopo.

Magawa is the first rat to be recognized by PDSA. Photo courtesy of APOPO.

Maria Dickin founded the organization during World War I and instituted the PDSA Dickin Medal — referred to as the Victoria Cross for animals — to recognize achievements and contributions in support of military operations or civil defense. Since its inception, 71 recipients have earned the award, including 34 dogs, 32 carrier pigeons, four horses, and one cat.

The organization also recognizes animals for gallantry and bravery in civilian life. On Sept. 25, 2020, the PDSA Gold Medal — comparable to the Distinguished Service Cross in the US military — was awarded to Magawa for his selfless work in Cambodia. The country is unfortunately home to the greatest number of mine amputees per capita in the world, and Magawa’s lifesaving work has since limited the exposure of children and adults to further harm.

For five years, Magawa has single-handedly searched 141,000 square meters, or 168,000 square yards, of land. He has alerted his handlers to 39 land mines and 28 items of unexploded ordnance. Magawa is the first rat in the history of the PDSA to be recognized and joins the most prestigious group of creatures in the world.

Matt Fratus is a history staff writer for Coffee or Die. He prides himself on uncovering the most fascinating tales of history by sharing them through any means of engaging storytelling. He writes for his micro-blog @LateNightHistory on Instagram, where he shares the story behind the image. He is also the host of the Late Night History podcast. When not writing about history, Matt enjoys volunteering for One More Wave and rooting for Boston sports teams.
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