Rats really don’t deserve all the scorn and disgust heaped upon them — some are even trained to sniff out tuberculosis. Others are helping humans fight crime, reports Ira Flatow in a segment produced by Christopher Intagliata for NPR’s Science Friday.
Inspector Monique Hammerslag of the Dutch National Police Force tells Science Friday that she's training rats to distinguish between brands of cigarettes and counterfeits — and that they're already great at their new jobs. The rats don’t have to smoke the cigarettes, just sniff the difference. Hammerslag trains them with bits of cigarettes in test tubes and the rodents pick up the basics in ten to 15 days, Nicholas Tufnell reports for Wired. Next, Hammerslag plans to strengthen the rats' repertoire, which already includes sniffing out gunpowder and other substances.
Given sufficient motivation, many animals can be trained, but rats are especially easy to train because they are so intelligent. They live in large social groups, which gives them a type of intelligence humans value — just like primates or pack hunting dogs, says Aaron Blaisdell, a professor of comparative psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles. They bond with humans, too. "I think of them as little, cuddly, cute pussy cats or puppies in that way," he told NPR. Rats can even be trained to respond to a few vocal commands, like dogs do, but they are more motivated by odor and visual cues.
Don’t worry, canines. Rats are unlikely to unseat dogs as man’s best friend or replace K-9 units — not only do they lack the hunting instinct humans often value, but some people just can't get past the fact that they're, well, rats. Nonetheless, rats could one day be part of police forces worldwide.