When Donna Kean moved from Scotland to Tanzania, she had more than just the culture shock to deal with.

The behavioural scientist from Scotland — whose mother is Canadian — had been more accustomed to working with apes and monkeys, but her new job in east Africa involved a creature less known for its intelligence: the rat. 

“I was really unsure about how that leap would be, because we know that primates are super intelligent creatures and it was great — they’re really dextrous — to work with them,” she said from her home in Morogoro, Tanzania. 

“With the rats, I was very surprised at just how intelligent they are and how trainable and how quickly they can learn, it was amazing.”

For the past year she has been working with the NGO APOPO, training rats to become invaluable members of earthquake search and rescue teams.

The project involves rats scrambling inside the rubble of collapsed buildings, looking for survivors.

“The unique advantage that the rats bring to the program would be that they’re very small,” said Kean.

“Typically with dogs, they just go around the perimeter of a debris site, but with our rats, we’re hoping they can actually penetrate inside the debris and get closer to victims, to give us a better idea of what’s going on under there and exactly where victims are.”

The rats will wear a special little backpack containing a camera, a location transmitter and a two-way radio, allowing rescuers to communicate with the person who is trapped.

Rats are trained to activate a switch on their backpack when they find a person in the rubble, transmitting a precise location back to rescuers.

Training the rodents takes up to a year and is done with the help of a special rat recipe.

“The positive reinforcement is kind of like a rat smoothie. So it’s avocado and banana mixed with ground-up rat pellets.