I first came to Tanzania in 2009 to work with colleagues from APOPO and elsewhere on a project funded by the Geneva International Commission on Humanitarian Demining. I’ve returned regularly since that time and my graduate students as well as my family have also lived in Tanzania and contributed to APOPO.

I am currently a Senior Behavioral Researcher at APOPO and try to benefit the organization by assisting my colleagues in ascertaining how well the rats are performing in their current operational capacities, in developing strategies for improving their performance in those capacities, in identifying novel humanitarian applications for the rats, in securing funds to support research and operational activities, and in publishing scientific articles describing various aspects of our scent-detection work.

I am a Professor of Psychology at Western Michigan University with expertise in behavior analysis, a discipline concerned with identifying relations between environmental inputs and behavioral outputs and the variables that affect those relations. I have substantial research and writing experience, having published 12 books and roughly 350 articles and book chapters.

Go ahead, ask me anything! And we've started! Hello Reddit!

PROOF! - https://twitter.com/HeroRATs/status/606487579634987009

To date, APOPO and the HeroRATs have located and destroyed 48,846 landmines and UXO (Unexploded Ordnance), returned more than 18,000,000sqm2 of land back to local communities, and freed more than 900,000 people from the threat on explosives.

Our TB detection work has identified 8,000 additional cases missed by local clinics, screened more than 300,000 samples, and prevented more than 29,000 potential TB infections.

Quick Links Imgur Gallery of HeroRATs - http://imgur.com/a/unWgu? A Day In The Life Of A HeroRAT In Training - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3IxU-MZ12VE Giant Rats Can Detect Tuberculosis - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jrp2UgbYJn4 Rats Save Humans From Landmines - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L0swUc492hU HeroRATs in the NYTimes - http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/19/opinion/sunday/nicholas-kristof-the-giant-rats-that-save-lives.html APOPO website - https://www.apopo.org Adopt a HeroRAT - https://www.apopo.org/en/adopt

Apologies for the rubbish formatting.

GOODNIGHT - Thanks, everyone, for our interactions today. It’s been my pleasure to try to field your questions and to learn what it is about APOPO that interests you. Should you have additional questions, or if I can be of assistance in any way, please email me at [email protected]. Best wishes to all and good night.

Comments: 55 • Responses: 18  • Date: 

sock201416 karma

For the TB detection rats trained to work in the hospitals, how long did it take them to learn to answer their tiny pagers?

Seriously, has funding been an issue, and is there anything the general public can do to help?

Alan_Poling_HeroRATs15 karma

Our HeroRATs don't work in hospitals themselves but rather we take sputum samples from local clinics and deliver them to our dedicated evaluation centre. Each rat takes around nine months on average to train and costs about $7,000.

We've been very fortunate to receive funding from many governments and institutions over the years. Support from the public is invaluable and really enables us to grow and achieve more. You can support us through our site and you can even adopt a HeroRAT. We even accept bitcoin!



aMotoVadered14 karma

Are any of the HeroRATs martial arts masters, and if so, would one of them be willing to teach my turtles how to fight?

Alan_Poling_HeroRATs21 karma

Our rats, like me, are better lovers than fighters ...

baween10 karma

Do the rats have any capacity to teach one another the tricks of their newly-found trade?

Alan_Poling_HeroRATs9 karma

We have not looked for evidence of observation learning in the rats and I have seen no evidence of it, but it occurs in many species and I would not be surprised if it occurs in our animals. At this juncture, however, I do not see how we could use such learning to good advantage in training our rats or in using them operationally.

baween7 karma

Thanks for the response! Hopefully your research will continue to bring safety and good health the world over. Best of luck!

Alan_Poling_HeroRATs3 karma

Thank you.

AGreatWind9 karma

Are the rats big enough to trigger any mines themselves? What are the loss rates among the rats?

Alan_Poling_HeroRATs20 karma

The HeroRATs weigh around 1.5kg, and this is not enough to set of the anti-personnel landmines they are searching for. Therefore we have never lost a rat to a landmine accident. Loss rates are actually a difficult question. A very small amount die from disease, occasionally they fight and cause injury, but mainly they recover from both and get back to work.

However we have been working in minefields now for over 7 years now, which is coming up to the maximum lifespan length of giant pouched rats in captivity. Therefore we are beginning lose the first round of HeroRATs simply to old age. Once they get to a point of self-imposed retirement, we leave them in their cages surrounded by their friends, occasionally exercising them, until they pass away. If they are in distress we humanely euthanize them

beernerd9 karma

Now that you've trained rats to find mines and TB, what is the next application you have in mind for their talents?

Alan_Poling_HeroRATs16 karma

We’ve examined the possibility of using the rats to search for people trapped under collapsed structures, to find contraband tobacco, and to detect salmonella bacteria in feces and have provided proof of principle with respect to all of these applications.

The rats can find anything that emits volatile organic compounds – smells, to you and me – that they can detect. Other people have shown that dogs apparently can detect some human cancers and pouched rats can in all likelihood do so as well. In principle they should also be able to detect some environmental contaminants and leaking pipelines, so there are a lot of potential applications of the sniffer rat technology. Substantial research and development is required, however, to determine whether any given application is feasible.

ZombieFoxheart9 karma

Your staff is always so friendly- you even went back to one of my previous comments asking about an AMA to tell me this was live. I really hope this one is suscessful for you guys. Donation from me incoming simply because of your politeness and passion.

I'm curious as to the breeding of the rats. I recall reading (but could be wrong) that rats that are not suscessful go back into the breeding program while the suscessful ones go to work. Wouldn't it be better to have a breeding program focused on ability, like dog breeds are/used to be bred for performance goals like hunting or racing? What's the long term goal with the breeding program?

Alan_Poling_HeroRATs15 karma

Our trainers care a great deal for their rats and in the early days of APOPO some poor-performing rats did go into the breeding colony. What could be better: no work, free food, and a loving partner? But this no longer occurs. Poor performers that do not respond to retraining now go into the “rest house,” where there is plenty of food and water and nice toys but, sad to say, no lovin”. In the breeding program itself we now do select the breeders from our top performers and as you suggest, this is indeed proving fruitful in terms of performance results

ropedangler8 karma

This is amazing but I'm just learning about you right now. TB and land mines are very different, are there any other tasks for these creatures that are being considered or you are currently preparing for?

Alan_Poling_HeroRATs9 karma

There was a similar question that we responded to here - http://www.reddit.com/r/IAmA/comments/38jbd3/i_am_dr_alan_poling_wmu_professor_of_psychology/crvifup

Please excuse the copy / paste - Essentially, the rats can find anything that emits volatile organic compounds – smells, to you and me – that they can detect. Other researchers have shown that dogs apparently can detect some human cancers and pouched rats can in all likelihood do so as well. In principle they should also be able to detect some environmental contaminants and leaking pipelines, so there are a lot of potential applications of the sniffer rat technology. Substantial research and development is required, however, to determine whether any given application is feasible.

HowIMetYourModem7 karma

How difficult was it to first train the rats?

Also, if you don't mind me asking another question, how would you rate this species' intelligence compared to the average pet rat, dogs, pigs, or even humans?

Alan_Poling_HeroRATs14 karma

I wasn’t involved with APOPO when the training procedures were initially developed, but those who were relate that quite a bit of trial-and-error was involved in devising effective training strategies. Several highly competent people worked to devise those procedures, and I’ve helped to refine them. They work well and the rats are now easy to train, although it takes some time to do so.

Pouched rats aren’t in any simple sense more or less intelligent than other animals, they’re just different in some respects. Some of their behavioral characteristics make them highly suited for the kinds of work they do at APOPO. For example, they don’t form strong bonds with handlers and will work incredibly hard for bites of banana.

Frajer7 karma

How did you get the idea to train rats?

Alan_Poling_HeroRATs10 karma

The idea to train rats comes from APOPO's Founder, Bart Weetjens, who grew up breeding rats and later found himself in Africa as a student looking into the issue of landmines. He stumbled across a research paper detailing how hamsters had once been trained to detect TNT and he thought that the idea could be developed further. It's probably best if I let Bart tell his story in his own words, here he is speaking at TED about it all.


I first got involved after a colleague forwarded me an email from the GICHD - Geneva International Committee on Humanitarian Demining - to help train giant rats to detect landmines and tuberculosis. Initially, I thought it would at least be a free trip to Tanzania!

Droidaphone7 karma

How many rats do you have working at a time? It sounds like it's one trainer per rat?

Alan_Poling_HeroRATs8 karma

Hello again. According to my colleagues, there are currently 224 HeroRATs spread across our operations. Details below.


Alan_Poling_HeroRATs6 karma

I don't actually know the exact answer right now but I will go away and ask my colleagues in the morning. It is nearly 10PM here in Morogoro and I have just the HeroRATs and James, our Comm's Manager, for company. I'll get back to you tomorrow.

Lune_Buddah5 karma

Why was the opportunity not taken to name them ROUS (rodents of unusual size)??

Alan_Poling_HeroRATs5 karma

We'll need to give you a call next time. HeroRATs was the best we could come up with at the time!

MrsMantis5 karma

What would your advice be to an 18 year old who is interested in pursuing a career similar to yours? (I am a teacher!).

Alan_Poling_HeroRATs13 karma

I’m inclined to say “don’t” but that would be both impolite and misleading. I’ve greatly enjoyed my work, which has given me many opportunities to do fun, and I hope at least sometimes worthwhile, things with great people. To have a successful career of any sort, and for that matter to have a life worth living, act with passion and kindness. Work hard. Take what you do and the people around you seriously, but not yourself. Work with and learn from women and men who are what you’d like to be. Be strong but not overpowering, planful but not rigid. There are many paths to the same destination, so don’t lose hope when you seem to go off course. It all comes right in the end.

YogaCat20155 karma

How else might behavior science provide innovative solutions to real world problems?

Alan_Poling_HeroRATs10 karma

Most of the significant problems that beset humanity, and hence the world, are behavioral in nature. Terrorism, racism, sexism, and a host of other isms are nothing more than shorthand descriptions of general patterns of behaving. Global warming stems from how we do and do not act, and the same is true of substance abuse, obesity, type 2 diabetes, and a host of other health concerns.

It’s easy enough to provide a behavioral analysis of why these problems occur, what’s hard is sorting out how to change the generator variables. Behavior analysts aren’t good at this, but the women and men who make capitalism sing are excellent. So, too, are some politicians, entertainers, and religious leaders. Data don’t change how people behave, but good marketing and effective leadership does. Broad spectrum behavior change requires making people desire something, behave appropriately to get it, and enjoy the whole experience. Easy to say, hard to orchestrate.

dodgermask5 karma

Hi Dr. Poling,

Unfortunately I never had the chance to get to talk to you much while at WMU, but I have tremendous respect for your work. It feels as though there's a tremendous amount of attention within the field of ABA on autism currently. How difficult is it to find willing collaborators in novel applications of behavior analysis? Similarly, what fields do you think could currently benefit the most from collaboration with someone with your training.

I realize this deviates significantly from the HeroRAT program, but I hope you'd be willing to provide some insight into the significance of your field.

Alan_Poling_HeroRATs6 karma

Thanks for the kind words. I’ve had no problem finding competent and enthusiastic people to work on projects, in part because I have the good fortune to be able to select graduate students who share common interests with me. For example, five of my graduate students have worked at APOPO and two of them, Amanda Mahoney and Tim Edwards, have held the position of Head of Behavioral Research and Training. In fact, Tim currently holds that position. I’ve also found that people from a wide range of disciplines are willing to work with me so long as I earn my place at the table, treat them with respect, and speak English, not Skinnerese. Behavior analysts have done a great deal to improve the lives of people with autism and I applaud that good work. But the tools they yield can be effective in a wide range of other applications. My granddad used to say that a good carpenter can build a church or an outhouse, it just depends on the blueprint. Much the same can be said of behavior analysts.

Hydra_Lord4 karma

I am a huge fan of APOPO and have been contributing since Dec 2013 (Alan is my boy!). Are there other places where landmines are a issue, but there aren't any rats to work there yet? Same question with TB!

Alan_Poling_HeroRATs4 karma

Thanks for your support.

More than one-third of the world’s countries, 56 states and four other areas, are contaminated with anti-personnel mines, cluster munitions or other explosive remnants of war. The threat of landmines pose a structural barrier to development and economic growth long after conflicts end.

Thousands of innocent children and adults are injured or killed by landmines every year. Villages are cut off from basic needs such as water sources and travel routes, and cannot grow crops or graze livestock on unsafe land. Detection of these devices is difficult, dangerous, costly and time-consuming. Of course, we would love to deploy our scent detection technology (rats!) to wherever they are needed and look forward to expanding where we work in the coming years.

As for TB, it ranks as the world’s second leading cause of death from an infectious disease after HIV. There are approximately 9 million new global cases of tuberculosis per year and around 1.5 million people die from the disease every year. In most sub-Saharan African countries only about half of the patients with active tuberculosis are diagnosed.

Globally 1.5 million people died from TB in 2013. . This is unacceptable given that most deaths from TB are preventable. Our TB rats have shown to increase detection rates by 45% which would make a huge difference in many parts of the world. We now operate more than 30 clinics in Tanzania and Mozambique and will continue to develop and improve the service.

neonmantis4 karma

What's your favorite rat story?

Alan_Poling_HeroRATs21 karma

I once asked a trainer “how is your rat doing?” and he replied in Swahili “great.” I then said, “very well, may I have a look at your data log?” The trainer gave it to me with a bit of a sheepish look, which was understandable when I noted that the rat had not worked in over a week. I pointed this out to the trainer and asked why the rat had not been used recently. “How is it then, that you’re rat is doing well?” I queried. The answer clearly showed the optimism and cheer of our staff: “She’s been sick but is doing better, and that’s great.” Enough said.