Rodents to the rescue: Rats trained to locate earthquake survivors

by Chris Lange

Chris Lange, FISM News


One of the world’s most loathed creatures could soon enjoy an image makeover, thanks to one innovative researcher. Donna Kean, a Glasgow research scientist, is working on a novel project to train rats to help search and rescue teams locate earthquake survivors. 

It takes just two weeks to train the rats to navigate debris while wearing tiny backpacks equipped with microphones, location trackers, and other gear. 

Altogether, 170 rats are being trained for projects, including landmine detection and sniffing out infectious diseases like Brucellosis, which primarily affects livestock. 

Kean, who has a PhD from Scotland’s Stirling University, said she came up with the idea for the innovative program after observing how quickly rats can be trained. She said their nimble-footed agility ideally suits them for work in disaster zones.

“It’s quite unusual. They are so agile, they are so good at moving through all kinds of different environments. They are perfect for search and rescue-type work,” Kean said, also pointing out that rats “can live off anything.”

“They are very good at surviving in different environments, which just shows how suitable they are for search and rescue work,” she added.

The rodents in the HeroRATS program are trained to respond to a beep which calls them back to the base. 

“A colleague is a seamstress. She makes the backpacks. She’s very talented,” Kean said.

The first graduating class of rodents will soon embark on their first mission, a trip to earthquake-prone Turkey where they will begin working with a real search and rescue team.

“We hope it will save lives. The results are really promising,” Kean said.

Through her work on the project, Kean has become a champion of sorts for the reviled rodent and says their reputation for being unhygienic is a misconception. She also describes them as extremely “sociable” creatures.