17 Early morning minefield training with the HeroRATs-in-training

I am not a morning person, but my 5:50am alarm signalled the start of a great day and I quickly rolled out of bed and made it to the rat dormitories for 6am to see the rats* being loaded on to the rat bus. By 6:20am we hit the trail.

*They attain the status HeroRAT upon completion of the rigorous training at Morogoro.

The ride to the minefield on the rat bus feels like it takes forever. So I had plenty of time to try and think of another situation where a human would be so violently shaken but I can’t imagine a single circumstance where that would happen unless it was a purpose built person-shaker!
The first thing that happens every day is a weighing of each rat.

Next they get clipped into a little harness and then they are off, searching for the targets in the minefield section. There are a mix of 3 metre and 5 metre wide boxes to search and the rats progress from TNT-filled tea eggs to boxes with a high density of landmines (so that the rats can get used to the more realistic targets) and then the boxes become more sparsely loaded in the more advanced training levels.

I spent time watching Runa and Joy in their basic training and then Ummy who had recently moved on to the deactivated mines.

Then I saw Teodora doing a great job finding the mines at a really quick pace.

Each rat works for up to 20 minutes in the early morning cool weather. The thing is though that the grass is wet and it’s even muddy in some places and these rats are babies and haven’t experienced that before! So some are extremely timid and walking comically by lifting their legs right up to try to step over the grass. The rats are taking lots of pauses today for grooming breaks so they can get the dew off their coats.
Most of the rats training this morning have recently moved onto their current stage and so they are just learning the ropes with it. During these early sessions, the trainers are extra vigilant for the rats signalling that they have found the right spot (which we can see from the placement of a marker at the edge of the strip) so that the rats can have the signalling behaviour positively rewarded.
You really do find yourself willing the little rat to find the mine. Concentrating with all your might as if that might help the rat. It’s quite tense when you can see the rat closing in on a landmine location.
The rats all naturally have very different signals when they detect something and the training is designed to amplify the rats scratching signal to make it fairly universally understood in the field. Some rats naturally stand up and sniff around while others sit down sniffing the air, while others will groom themselves before signalling with a scratch.
The inescapable realisation from spending any time at the minefield is just how much personality and individuality these little critters have. They seem to be as different as one person is from another.
I watched 5 or so rats this morning and saw lots of different behaviours. One pair of trainers are absolutely fantastic with the rats and every time the rat gets handled it also gets a little scratch. Some of the rats were struggling a bit more because of the recent rain; it probably deadens the scent as well as just being unpleasant to walk in.

At the end of the session, the trainers all gather around for a discussion about the mornings training. They talk about general issues and specific things for certain rats. The discussion this morning was mainly about the effect of the rain on the ability of the rats to detect mines as they move from the familiar tea-egg stage onto the first 3m minefield stage, when they are unsure of how to indicate that they have found a smell (very different to when they can dig up the tea-egg). In the meeting, different points of view are heard and agreement needs to be reached before people are ready to decide as a group whether anything gets changed.

Anthony is a really lovely trainer with very good English and he has been making sure I knew roughly what was going on this morning. He invited me to get some breakfast with the trainers on the way back to the main office and then invited me to eat with them at tea time. We had chapatti and manzadi (delicious fresh Tanzanian doughnuts) and Pendo brought over some fresh local honey to go with it. I had a cup of tea using the fresh local milk (boiled as it is unpasteurised).
It was good to see everyone laughing and joking about things and every now and again Anthony would translate for me.
I saw some of the younger rats training on the soil table, learning to associate the smell of camomile with a reward (training for the research team rather than for the Mine Detection Rats programme).

Lily is updating some communication materials and mentioned that she was interested in knowing the latest information on which rats is where (there are different sites in Morogoro, Dar es Salaam, Mozambique, Ethiopia and Cambodia. There are even some rats at zoos in the United States). I’m also pretty keen to understand this a bit more accurately so I started doing some digging. I got the latest spreadsheets from Cindy and Mica and then conducted an inventory check of all the rats at Head Office and updated the spreadsheet. It took me a couple of hours but it’s definitely useful for APOPO to have accurate data and it gave me an insight into what’s involved in inventory management.
The heavens opened and ruined our plans to swim tonight but it also meant that I found out that the restaurants will deliver dinner for free. So now I’m excited for that – going to eat at Mica’s really cool round house (that was originally a water tower!)

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