My short bio: Dr. Cindy Fast holds a Ph.D. and Master’s degree in Psychology specialising in Learning and Behaviour and Behavioural Neuroscience from UCLA. Cindy has more than ten years of experience conducting behavioural research with a variety of species including rats, mice, pigeons, hermit crabs, and horses.

In September Cindy moved from the US to take on her new role at APOPO. Dr. Fast plans to use her knowledge and expertise to optimize training and performance of the HeroRATs.

My Proof: Dr. Cindy Fast with Jones the HeroRAT.

About APOPO: APOPO is a non-profit that trains rats to save lives. Based in Tanzania, the organisation has pioneered the development of scent detection rats, nicknamed HeroRATs.

APOPO's landmine detection rats have helped sniff out more than 100,000 mines helping to free nearly one million people from the threat of explosives.

APOPO's tuberculosis detection rats have safely sniffed more than 350,000 sputum samples identifying 10,000 additional cases of TB that were missed by clinics.

APOPO website -

Adopt or gift a HeroRAT -

Donate -

Dr. Fast will begin answering questions at 12pm EST.

EDIT - It's late night in Tanzania and Dr Fast has had to retire for the evening. Our Fundraising Manager, Robin Toal, will take over from here on out but will need to report back on any particularly tricky questions. Big thanks for all your questions, it's been a blast!

EDIT 2 - It's time to say goodnight (UK here). I'll pop back in the morning and will ask Dr Fast to answer a selection of the questions we didn't get to tonight. Thanks for your questions and if you're looking for a holiday gift you can't go wrong with a HeroRAT adoption.

Comments: 1038 • Responses: 54  • Date: 

FultonPig2164 karma

Are there many landmines with tuberculosis?

Dr_Cindy_Fast1700 karma

Please don't give them any ideas!

Snowbank_Lake693 karma

There are special cemeteries and memorials for dogs who do military work and such. Do you hope to see us give the same amount of recognition to specially trained rats?

Dr_Cindy_Fast1445 karma

You’ll be pleased to know that our staff began the tradition of burying the HeroRATs that passed away in the early days. Our staff in different countries have different cultures and they each honour the animals that have passed in their own way. In Tanzania our staff will often sing a song or two whilst in Cambodia our staff they hand build wooden grave markers and take a moment of silence.

neonmantis452 karma

Do the rats enjoy their work?

Dr_Cindy_Fast1162 karma

It's hard to speculate about what enjoyment is for a non-human animal, but if I may, I think the answer would be YES! The rats are always eager to work, they greet us and they willingly perform their duties. It is quite a sight to see a young rat in mine detection training "happily" following their trainer through the field after a session, without a harness or any leash! I think if the rats could wag their tales like a dog then they certainly would when they see us and go to work.

viensanity332 karma

ROUS's? I don't believe they exist?

Dr_Cindy_Fast327 karma

Nice Princess Bride reference! We're big fans of the film, as you'd expect.

patentolog1st286 karma

I reside on an island which is being overrun with invasive species. Since you are starting to move the rats into new territories around Asia, I am wondering if you spay/neuter them in case they get loose?

Dr_Cindy_Fast504 karma

Great question! Yes, indeed! Our rats are spayed/neutered before they are transported to operational sites outside of Tanzania, although none have ever chose to run away.

patentolog1st215 karma

Appreciated. Please give the rats a hug from me next time you see them. :-)

Dr_Cindy_Fast196 karma

Will do!

Fulgore_18222 karma

Have any of the trained animals accidentally set a mine off? Do they get a funeral?

Dr_Cindy_Fast622 karma

None of our animals have ever been harmed in the line of duty. The beauty of the rats work is that they are actually too light to set off traditional landmines so their well-being is not threatened when they go to work.

Our rats always receive a local funeral. I've answered in more detail above.

Captain_Slow42220 karma

Holy shit. This is amazing. Thanks for all your hard work. I haven't checked out the website yet, but just dream reading the short bio, it sounds like you (and APOPO) are doing amazing work.

My questions:

Which countries does your organization operate in? Are there some countries the rats work better than others in?

Also, they look adorable (and HUGE). How are they to work with and train? Do they pick things up faster or slower than other animals you've worked with and do you have a favorite? :)

Dr_Cindy_Fast297 karma

Thanks! APOPO currently works in Angola, Mozambique, Cambodia, and Tanzania. We aim to start TB detection in Ethiopia and landmine detection in Zimbabwe next year.

We are focused on solving humanitarian problems in developing countries. TB detection works the same wherever we are in the world but landmine clearance is affected by the different environments. In Cambodia we have discovered that the surface tends to be rockier than in the sub-Saharan countries we have worked previously but the rats quickly overcame these new challenges.

The rats are truly a pleasure to work with (if you're lucky, you'll even get a sweet lick or two) and they are quick and eager learners. It's a bit difficult to compare how quickly they learn compared to other species because I've never trained any other animals to detect landmines or tuberculosis! Overall, I'd say they are pretty similar to a dog or typical labrat. I try to make it a point to not develop favorites, but because Nala was the very first rat I met when I arrived, I think she stole a special place in my heart.

wtfgiraffe18208 karma

Hello Dr. Fast, thank you for doing this AMA.

I've recently been reading more into APOPO and find it really interesting. I was wondering if you could explain more about the process of training the rats for detect mines and TB. I also have a few other questions.

  1. How do African giant-pouched rats compare to the type of rat that can be bought in a pet store, as far as training and intelligence go?

  2. Was any research done using different types of animals for detecting TB and mines? How did APOPO come to using African giant-pouched rats specifically?

  3. What other experiences have led you to working in this field?

  4. How much time do the rats spend out looking for mines or in the lab detecting TB?

  5. How accurate are the rats in detecting mines and TB?

Thanks again!

Dr_Cindy_Fast464 karma

Thanks for your questions!

How do African giant-pouched rats compare to the type of rat that can be bought in a pet store, as far as training and intelligence go?

We follow standard learning & behavior procedures to train our rats, much like you might experience when training a dog. We start with clicker training where the rat learns that a click sound leads to a food reward by repeatedly pairing these two events. After that, we then shape the rats behavior by rewarding successive approximations towards the target by making the click when the rat does something close to what we really want. Finally, the rat learns that it will only be rewarded for performing that specific behavior (gently scratching for landmines or hovering over a sample for TB) in the presence of the specific odor we want them to detect (explosives or TB).

Was any research done using different types of animals for detecting TB and mines? How did APOPO come to using African giant-pouched rats specifically?

Mine Detection Dogs have been in use for decades but they are quite expensive and sometimes struggle in the hot and dry environments in Africa that APOPO was initially focused on. Our Founder, Bart Weetjens, had a background in breeding rats and during his research discovered an old article detailing how hamsters were successfully trained to detect TNT. From there, it was just a case of finding a suitable rodent in the region. As it happened, no more than two weeks later our Founder spotted a local man walking a Giant African Pouched rat on a leash which told us that these giant rats could be domesticated.

Some other great reasons why we selected rats was because they are easily trainable, cheap to maintain, easy to transport between locations, excellent sense of smell, highly resistant to disease and they are adapted to the environments we work in.

What other experiences have led you to working in this field?

I grew up surrounded by animals and enjoyed every minute around them. After earning my Bachelor's degree in Psychology with a Neuroscience Concentration, I then went to UCLA where I earned my Master's and Ph.D. While at UCLA, I had the great opportunity to work with pigeons and hermit crabs, in addition to rats. From there, I served as post-doctoral associate in a lab examining the neruobiology of smell in rodents. In the end, I think my whole life has actually led up to this particular work!

How much time do the rats spend out looking for mines or in the lab detecting TB?

Our rats spend less than an hour (about 40 minutes) a day in the field or lab to save lives.

How accurate are the rats in detecting mines and TB?

Our tuberculosis detection rats have increased TB detection rates by 40% in the clinics where we work.

Our mine detection rats have been proven to be at least as accurate as the approved internationally approved mine clearance methods. They are significantly quicker too as they only detect explosives and ignore scrap metal contamination which makes traditional demining with a metal detector so slow.

All of our research is peer reviewed and available online here -

zonkdaddynyc162 karma

Is there a possibility of training these rats to detect cancers?

Dr_Cindy_Fast271 karma

Absolutely! We already have initial discussions in the works to determine the feasibility, what types of samples (for example, urine or breath) would be best-suited, and what cancers might be best for our rats to detect. We are aiming towards cancers that currently do not have reliable or cost-effective screening techniques and for which life-saving treatment exists if only the cancer is actually detected.

iownablender101 karma

This may sound dumb. BUT are the rats you work with smarter than the average rat? Bigger so I'm assuming bigger brains? If so wouldn't that make them highly intelligent?

Dr_Cindy_Fast266 karma

Good question! Yes, our rats are definitely larger than typically rats and also have larger brains. As a neuroscientist, I can tell you that a larger brain doesn't necessarily translate to greater intelligence. Intelligence is vey difficult to define, especially among non-verbal, non-human species. From what I've witnessed, our rats are very similar in learning abilities to other typical rat species. The biggest difference is their lifespan, which means that they have more time to learn more things over the course of their lives.

aliothsan94 karma

How are the rats bred? Do you pair them up with an eye toward any specific characteristics, or randomly? Is the breeding population separate from the working population? Any interesting / cute highlights from rat childhood?

As a rat owner myself I love APOPO and think your work is so awesome and cute :)

Dr_Cindy_Fast184 karma

We first introduce the mating pairs to one another in separate cages positioned next to one another. If the two like each other, they will make soft noises and sort of paw at each other through the cage (sort of like they are playing patty-cake). After the rats have shown this behavior, we then release them together in a large cage where they have a clay pot to rest, wooden toys to climb on, and plenty of food to eat. We leave them together for 30 days before removing the male and then closely monitoring the female for signs that she might be pregnant.

Our breeding colony is housed in a quiet building at our main headquarters, separate from the rest of our rats.

I was incredibly fortunate to witness one of our newest HeroRATs being born just last week. For me, that was a particularly special moment.

Frajer88 karma

How long does it take to train a rat?

Dr_Cindy_Fast185 karma

Our rats typically reach accreditation standards within 9 months for TB detection and slightly longer for landmine detection.

thenewstoryline71 karma

How long do these trained rats live for?

How much does it cost to train a rat?

Do you grow attached to these rats?

How many rats have died from landmines and do they have a memorial?

Do you get to take the retired ones home and keep them as pets?

What was the most intelligent rat you ever trained?

Where would soldiers keep these rats when out in the field?

Dr_Cindy_Fast177 karma

How long do these trained rats live for?

Around 7-8 years normally.

How much does it cost to train a rat?

Around $7,000 each which sounds expensive but they are significantly cheaper than the alternative solutions.

Do you grow attached to these rats?

Absolutely! Many of us are animal lovers and every one of our staff will have their favourite HeroRAT. They are fun, sociable, and inquisitive creatures meaning it is hard not to develop bonds with them.

How many rats have died from landmines and do they have a memorial?

Not a single rat has ever been hurt by a landmine. They are too light to trigger mines and operate under strict safety conditions.

Do you get to take the retired ones home and keep them as pets?

Our retired rats are kept with all of their other HeroRAT buddies rather than being separated. We don't tend to adopt them as we want to ensure that their years of hard work are thoroughly rewarded with expert care and mountains of great food.

What was the most intelligent rat you ever trained?

Intelligence can be a bit tricky to quantify. Because I've only been with APOPO a few months, I'm afraid I don't have any examples with our Giant African Pouched Rats. For me, it would probably be a lab rat that I worked with at UCLA. At first, she appeared to be learning more slowly than all of the others - until I watched what she was doing during her training session. Turns out she had learned the most clever solution to what I thought should be a chellenging task. After changing a few things in the cage to prevent her from doing her "little tricks" she quickly caught up to the performance of all of the other rats and even beat them to the finish line (meaning she mastered the task before everyone else). She was quite a special rat to work with.

Where would soldiers keep these rats when out in the field?

APOPO is focused on humanitarian demining in post-conflict areas and as such we employ local civilian staff to clear mines. Typically we will establish a small office and base for the HeroRATs near to where we are clearing mines.

8andahalfby1170 karma

How does the rat learn to tell the difference between a mine and, say, a mine-shaped rock?

Dr_Cindy_Fast161 karma

Good question! Our rats are nocturnal which means they spend most of their time in the dark. As a result, they don't have very good eyesight and rely more heavily on their sense of smell. They use this incredible olfactory abilities to sniff out the landmines, rather than looking for them. This means they really don't have much trouble telling the difference between an explosive device and say a rock. This is especially helpful because most landmines are buried below the earth's surface where they can't be seen.

defacto356 karma

How did you get involved in this field of work?

Dr_Cindy_Fast81 karma

Thanks for asking the first question!

I have always loved animals and enjoyed learning more about them. While working on my bachelor's degree, I had a really outstanding professor invite me to join his lab where he was looking at how rats solve various problems to gain a greater understanding about the process of learning. After joining his lab, I never looked back!

botaniquest30 karma

Are there any major differences between giant pouched rats and ordinary domestic rats, behavior-wise?

Dr_Cindy_Fast55 karma

I've only noticed very slight differences in behavior. Our African Giant Pouched Rats tend to be a bit more social with their human counterparts. That's not to say that domestic or typical lab rats aren't social towards humans by any means. Maybe it's more patience; the giant rats tend to be more relaxed and calculated in their motions. Perhaps it is driven by the underlying differences in life expectancy with domestic rats only living 3-5 years and giant rats living 8 or more years. Of course, there's the major difference of hoarding scrumptious food in their pouched cheeks (where they get their names) which domestic rats don't have the opportunity to try!

rcoor1345 karma

What does an average day look like for you?

Dr_Cindy_Fast118 karma

I start the day at the landmine training field at 6:30am. We train the rats there until around 9am so the rats don't have to work in the excessive heat or sun of Sub-Saharan Africa. From there, I stop by our TB lab to check in on operations and oversee training of our young rats that have just joined the team. After lunch, I return to our main office where I monitor progress on our ongoing lines of research. Spattered throughout is answering emails, writing grant proposals to fund our work, and other general manager-type duties. One highlight for me is the time I spend in our breeding colony checking on our new arrivals.

MrsMantis40 karma

I'm a big fan of APOPO so thanks for doing this AMA. My question is what is next for APOPO? Are you going to train the rats to detect new things?

Dr_Cindy_Fast66 karma

Absolutely! We have a very active and growing Research & Development department that is constantly exploring new avenues for our rats to use their amazing sense of smell in solving pressing global humanitarian problems. We have recently started a collaboration with the Endangered Wildlife Trust on a project that is funded by the US Fish and Wildlife Services to train our rats to detect wildlife and hardwoods illegally smuggled out of Africa in shipping containers. We are also exploring possibilities for the rats to detect food-bourne illnesses (such as salmonella), diseases in animals (for example brucella infection or bovine TB) and other human diseases (various cancers and even Alzheimer's). There's A LOT of potential for our sniffer rats to put their noses to good use!

Redditruinsjobs37 karma

What are the rats landmine detection percentage? If one rat cleared a field would you feel comfortable walking through it yourself? Do you overlap their clearance tracks for a kind of "two rat integrity?"

Dr_Cindy_Fast138 karma

What are the rats landmine detection percentage?

All of our mine detection rats are required to pass blind tests at a 100% clip to become approved for detection purposes. There is no cutting corners when dealing with a life and death situation like landmines and if a rat cannot consistently pass the tests then they are not used in the field.

If one rat cleared a field would you feel comfortable walking through it yourself?

Absolutely. We return the land to local communities to farm, build houses, and to develop their communities, and we have no concerns whatsoever walking over minefields cleared by the HeroRATs. In over a decade of mine clearance, covering 26,000,000 m2, there has not been a single mine or device found in any minefield that APOPO's rats have cleared.

motiv1137 karma

Does each rat have its name? How can you tell them apart?

Dr_Cindy_Fast96 karma

Every single rat has a name with most of them being named by our local trainers at our HQ in Tanzania. We have a few soccer players (Ramsey, Ozil, Drogba, Adebayor, Lukaku, Kompany, Mourinho, Wenger etc), some Star Wars rats (Skywalker, Han Solo, and Princess Leia), and some celebrities too (Jon Stewart, Taylor Swift, Malala).

Our rats either have their own home environment or share cage with another rat which are labelled. Each of the rats have their own unique markings, behaviours, and relationships with our staff and we don't normally have any problem telling them apart.

shylowheniwasyoung61 karma

Oh man- can you post a photo of Jon Stewart the rat? Mr. Stewart (the human) is a huge animal lover and would probably love to hear he has a HeroRat named after him!

Dr_Cindy_Fast76 karma

We'll report back with a picture as soon as we can!

demonicpigg36 karma

I read that you use operant conditioning, with positive reinforcement. I've had good results with using positive reinforcement to get my cat to do certain things (she touches her food plate before we give it to her, she will jump up on my lap when I whistle a certain way, and she touches my hand when I draw it up above her nose) but I can't use positive reinforcement to remove a behavior.

She yowls constantly for an hour or two before it's time for dinner (a behavior learned thanks to my father giving her treats when she meows), and I would like to at the very least lessen it. Do you have any recommendations on approaches I could take?

Dr_Cindy_Fast82 karma

Great question for a learning theorist/behavior specialist and someone who has successfully trained her cat to also do various things! Reinforcement is used to strengthen or increase the likelihood of a behavior. For positive reinforcement, this means delivering an appetite reward as an outcome to a desirable behavior to increase the likelihood of that behavior. For negative reinforcement (often erroneously confused with punishment) this means taking away or removing an aversive or unpleasant event when the desirable behavior occurs. Think of putting slight pressure on a leash until the dog/cat moves away from that irritating pressure. In this case, the behavior of walking is rewarded by removing the irritating behavior.

Because your goal is to DECREASE the occurrence of an undesirable behavior, reinforcement is not your answer. I would try an omission schedule instead which involves removing any reinforcement (including acknowledging in any shape or form) for your cat's annoying yowling. Give him/her lots of attention a few hours before dinner, but withhold any response once she starts her typical yowling. It'll be tough, but try to stick it out for a few days and s/he should stop. Hope that helps!

volsund35 karma

So what does rat do when it finds a mine under sand or something? How can you tell it has found something?

Dr_Cindy_Fast79 karma

We originally trained our rats to pause for a few seconds above the mine but if you’ve ever handled a rat you’ll know they don’t enjoy staying still! We now train them to lightly scratch above the surface of the earth. You can watch a video of exactly how it works here -

harmonicoasis27 karma

Land mines and TB seem like two very different things to detect. Are these separate training processes or is one somehow a side-effect of the other? If it's the same, how did that come to be discovered? If it's separate, what lead you to choose those two topics for detection?

Dr_Cindy_Fast44 karma

Land mines and TB seem like two very different things to detect. Are these separate training processes or is one somehow a side-effect of the other? If it's the same, how did that come to be discovered? If it's separate, what lead you to choose those two topics for detection?

The process is a little bit different but shares the same principles of positive reinforcement. Our infographics explain the differences well:

We started out detecting landmines and later developed our tuberculosis detection rats. Tuberculosis is the deadliest infectious disease in the world killing more people every year than HIV / AIDS. It was expensive to treat and it was a growing problem in Africa that desperately needed a innovative solution. As humans we tend to rely on our eyes to identify medical problems whether that is looking for a rash or using a microscope. Rats however, use their sense of smell to understand the world and they are able to sniff out diseases in a fast, reliable, and accurate way, that just isn’t possible using conventional technologies.

We think there is great potential for future health applications for the HeroRATs and other scent detection animals.

Klaus_Kinski_alt24 karma

Aside from the trained rats, how are they viewed around Tanzania and elsewhere? Are they seen as pests the way they're viewed in cities in the West?

Dr_Cindy_Fast65 karma

In general, I think Tanzanians also view the wild rat counterparts of our rats as pests. Interestingly, though, many local Tanzanians I've spoke with are very aware of the work our HeroRATs are doing and think it's amazing that the rats can do work that they themselves can't (have you ever tried to sniff out a landmine? LOL). Many of our rat trainers throughout the world shared this initial response, but once they started working with them, they realized just how delightful they are to be around. Each rat has its own personality and character and I think that makes them especially endearing to the people around them. Fortunately, our HeroRATs can serve as ambassadors for rats everywhere!

An_Autistic_Thought23 karma

Do the rats get hurt when they find a land mine?

Dr_Cindy_Fast61 karma

Not a single rat has ever been harmed during our detection work. They are simply too light to set off landmines and operate under strict safety procedures to keep everyone safe.

You can watch a video of it here -

An_Autistic_Thought19 karma

Then it's a win/win for everyone :)

Dr_Cindy_Fast54 karma

We try our best to treat our rats like the heroes we believe they are.

NeverEnufWTF22 karma

This is really cool work, but, because I can't resist a pun, and despite the fact that you are probablydefinitely way smarter than me, when was the last time someone told you to think fast?

Dr_Cindy_Fast38 karma

I actually love these Fast puns (which are probably as frequent as you can imagine) because Fast is my married name! Far more fun and exciting than Cardwell (my maiden name), though I doubt I would feel that way if I grew up with the puns.

theyrelyingtoyou21 karma

It's interesting to hear what is possible with these HeroRat's. In particular peoples relationships with these animals seems to be one of the more noticed aspects of these animals. Do you notice any of the rats more or less willing to perform as task for different people?

Dr_Cindy_Fast41 karma

Thanks for your question! Our rats are highly sociable animals who enjoy spending time with their human colleagues but they don’t form close bonds with specific individuals. They tend to love all their human buddies equally.

This is actually a major advantage as it means we can relocate our rats to where they’re needed without having to supply a specific trainer as well.

wealthy_but_broke20 karma

Could you (would you) make it possible for rat training to be an at-home activity for regular people with some time to spare?

I'm retiring soon and this seems like a rewarding retirement hobby. Ordinary people train dogs for the blind in heir homes. I'd like to train rats to detect TB.

I took a couple behavior mod classes in college. The rats are readily available. I would need neutered TB samples, videos or written instruction on how to do the rat training -- and a way to find out where the trained rats are needed. Perhaps trained rats would go to a central clearing house so the quality of their training could be confirmed -- and the clearing house would distribute them?

Dr_Cindy_Fast36 karma

Thanks for your generous offer of support! I see a few challenges with your proposal but that's not to say they couldn't be overcome. We currently breed and train all of our rats at our HQ in Tanzania and it can be difficult to source African Pouched Rats in many countries.

If you have a genuine interest in pursuing this we have an open call for applications for new projects on our website.

karmafy18 karma

How many hours per day and week does each rat train while in training?

Dr_Cindy_Fast49 karma

Each rat trains for less than an hour per day, five days per week. They spend the weekend feasting on a variety of fresh, nutritious produce and relaxing.

karmafy15 karma

In all sounds like they have a good life! Keep up the great work!

Dr_Cindy_Fast17 karma


kobukproject17 karma

I watched a documentary on the topic of the landmine detecting rats. It stated that one of the benefits of using rats vs dogs is that the rat has the stamina to work much longer detecting mines vs a dog who needs to have more frequent breaks every 45mins. Is this true about the rats stamina while detecting mines?

Dr_Cindy_Fast47 karma

Our rats work only work 40 minutes a day as well, they have much shorter legs than dogs so it takes more energy to cover the minefield.

There are a few advantages to rats over dogs:

• cheaper to train and maintain

• easier to breed

• easier to transport between locations

• rats don’t form close bonds with individual trainers meaning they can work with anyone not a single trainer

• they are too light to trigger landmines which unfortunately does sometimes happen with mine detection dogs.

CloudGeneral16 karma

I had no idea that rats are actually used to discover land mines! Pretty epic stuff from an animal that usually looked at as a nuisance. How do you communicate with them?

Dr_Cindy_Fast52 karma

We try to communicate to the rats in a language they understand. Mostly this is bananas and peanuts! But it also involves teaching the rats that a clicker sound signals delivery of these scrumptuous treats. When the rat has correctly signalled (by lightly scratching the surface of the ground where a known landmine is hidden or hovering over a TB+ sample), we then sound the clicker.

We also have a gentleman known affectionately as Uncle Albert who arguably has the best job in the world. His sole responsibility is to nurture the youngest HeroRATs and gently introduce the HeroRATs to the sights, sounds, and smells of our human world. This ensures that they are happy and relaxed working with us.

We don't currently select breeding pairs based on any specific characteristics or qualities, but we are entertaining the idea of doing this in the future. To ensure that our rats have a diverse gene pool, we also occasionally introduce wild rats into our breeding program for a very short period before they are re-released into the wild.

BarfTheDog14 karma

Do the trained rats interact with each other? Is it different from two pet rats interacting? Do they both know they're trained?

Dr_Cindy_Fast23 karma

Yes, our rats get to interact with one another, especially during their free-time in the play pen, but even in their home cages they can see, hear, and smell one another. Not much different from pet rats. You can clearly see which rats seem to have an affinity for one another, which ones just tolerate each other, and which ones would rather not have to "talk" (we try to move these ones apart as soon as we identify this behavior). I'm not sure how you would be able to determine if they somehow knew that they were both trained to perform a task. I don't really notice any hints of this, whatever it might be.

karmafy13 karma

Is APOPO training or working with any other animals?

Dr_Cindy_Fast21 karma

Not at this time, though part of our most recent project involves training our rats to detect illegally poached and smuggled animals. Quite frankly, we just haven't found anything that our rats can't do!

Panduin12 karma

Where is your camp located in Tanzania? Is it possible to visit it for a day or something, to learn about the project? I am currently volunteering in Tanzania and it sounds very interesting, thats why I ask :)

Dr_Cindy_Fast13 karma

Our HQ is on the campus of the Sokoine University of Agriculture in Morogoro. It's a beautiful part of the country.

We should be able to accommodate a visit but we recommend you email us first to ensure someone is there to show you around.

CaptainRiffoSwank12 karma

I was reading above that these giant rats live for around 8 years. Are these rats retired at a certain age? Are there any giant rat adoption policies in place, or do they end up with a handler after their years of service?

Dr_Cindy_Fast46 karma

We allow our rats to determine their own retirement timeline. They are normally enthusiastic and keen to start work when we arrive in the morning but when that is no longer apparent they are allowed to peacefully retire to a life of delicious food, play time with their rat buddies, regular health checks, and they are free from being woken up in the morning for work!

We don't tend to let others adopt the HeroRATs simply because we want to ensure they are treated like the heroes they are and receive the expert care they need.

Annepackrat11 karma

What do the rats get as a reward for finding a land mine?

What do you feed them?

Do you breed them?

Dr_Cindy_Fast17 karma

Our rats get banana, peanuts or a peanut-paste for reward when they have correctly identified a known landmine or TB+ sample. Aside from these rewards, they are fed a variety of fresh, locally available fruits and veggies including avacados, watermelon, corn, tomatoes, etc., and even small dried fish the size of sardines.

All of our rats are bred at our main headquarters in Tanzania.

VenomRatte11 karma

How do you train and reward the rats to do this kind of work?

Dr_Cindy_Fast14 karma

I hope you don't mind a bit of cut and paste from a similar question above. If you have any follow ups I'd be happy to answer them.

We follow standard learning & behavior procedures to train our rats, much like you might experience when training a dog. We start with clicker training where the rat learns that a click sound leads to a food reward by repeatedly pairing these two events. After that, we then shape the rats behavior by rewarding successive approximations towards the target by making the click when the rat does something close to what we really want. Finally, the rat learns that it will only be rewarded for performing that specific behavior (gently scratching for landmines or hovering over a sample for TB) in the presence of the specific odor we want them to detect (explosives or TB).

Scharaswan10 karma

Hello Dr. Fast, I haven't had a chance to read all the post so maybe you've already answered this but, how many rats are in your program? 8-)

Dr_Cindy_Fast24 karma

We have around 250 giant rats in various stages of breeding, training, operations, retirement, and research.

adillon8088 karma

I'm going to be honest here and say these rats terrify me. How do they get so big?

Dr_Cindy_Fast19 karma

So sorry to hear this, I'm reasonably sure that if you met one in-person your fears would diminish! Our rats are an entirely different species (cricetomys ansorgei) than the common rat (rattus). This makes it sort of like asking how did the kangaroo get so big compared to the opossum. Our rats are still rather small in perspective to other mammals, for example, they're smaller than most cats.

botaniquest7 karma

Have you had any particular favorite rats that stand out in your memory? Or rat-and-handler teams?

Dr_Cindy_Fast13 karma

I've only been with the team for a little under 2 months now, so not much time to develop favorites. As I previously mentioned, Nala was the very first rat I met when I arrived so she's special to me.

chickenman03216 karma

Can you train a rat to kill?

Dr_Cindy_Fast15 karma

Good question! What exactly would you want the rats to kill? Without training, rats are natural enemies to mice and some have been known to be quite efficient at exterminating their foes.

NotSoStandardDeviant11 karma

Do the mice ever try to use landmines? Is that the real motivation for the rats to learn these techniques?

Dr_Cindy_Fast17 karma

After working with both rats and mice, I strongly doubt the mice have ever been bothered to figure out landmines or put them to use for their own benefit. Our rats are definitely motivated by bananas!

rcoor132 karma

How did your cat get his name?

Dr_Cindy_Fast4 karma

Our cat, Azrael, was named after the original Smufs cartoon both my husband and I watched growing up in the 80's. Azzy is orange and white just like the cat from the cartoon.

sunonthecross2 karma

Could the rats be replaced by humans?

Dr_Cindy_Fast7 karma

Our rats are effectively replacing human deminers although the rats still rely on humans to complete their detection work.

The key difference is speed. Demining with a metal detector is horribly slow as minefields are often riddled with metal contamination. Every bullet or piece of scrap metal has to be carefully excavated as if it was a landmine which is a painstaking process.

Our rats are trained to detect explosives meaning they ignore contaminants and we can simply focus on removing mines and explosives from the ground. One HeroRAT can search around 200 square meters in 20 minutes. This would take a technician with a metal detector between one and four days (depending on how much scrap metal (metal contamination) is present)).

Mainehammer207-2 karma

How much do you get paid? Do you get Warzone pay too?

Dr_Cindy_Fast5 karma

I think it's probably true for anyone that works with a non-profit, the answer is it is never about the money or what you are paid. It's all about the difference you are making in the world. I feel like I have found the absolute best job in the world. I work for an organization boasting with integrity that I am proud to be a part of, training rats to save lives! It really doesn't get much better than that!

My work is based at our headquarters in Tanzania, so I don't really visit any war zones.

Mainehammer207-12 karma

that is the lamest answer I have ever heard. "AMA" it's not like I want to know what you make after taxes. I could tell from other questions that you love your job, that is why I was curious about how much you make. w/e, you can't win them all.

Dr_Cindy_Fast12 karma

So sorry, didn't mean to offend or intentionally skirt your question. That was my initial honest response. You'll have to forgive me for not sharing my exact salary (the exchange rate is hard to understand unless you've been to Sub-Saharan Africa anyhow), but I can tell you it is far less than what I would be making had I chose to stay in Academia.