Her name is Lola and she's at the top of her class of risk-running rodents being trained to sniff out landmines in Colombia, home to the world's highest number of mine-related deaths and injuries last year.
SIBATE, Colombia Her name is Lola and she's at the top of her class of risk-running rodents being trained to sniff out landmines in Colombia, home to the world's highest number of mine-related deaths and injuries last year.
The smartest rat among the first six that the government is teaching to locate explosive devices planted by leftist rebels, she has a 90 percent success rate in locating explosive material in her laboratory training maze.
Police animal trainers, tired of seeing their explosive-sniffing dogs blown up by stepping on mines, hope the white-furred, pink-eyed creature will lead her classmates through upcoming open field tests and then into the Andean country's live mine fields before the end of the year.
At about 7.8 ounces Lola is too light to detonate landmines that guerrillas set to protect crops used to make cocaine, which they sell to fund their four-decade-old revolution. It take about 14 ounces of pressure to detonate a mine.
"The dogs are heavy enough to set off the explosion, sometimes killing officers nearby," said Police Col. Javier Cifuentes, head of the program at the National Police base in Sibate, near the capital city of Bogota.
"The rats can stand on a mine without anything happening."
More than 1,075 Colombians were killed or maimed by stepping on mines in 2005, the government says, a higher number than in any other heavily mined country such as Cambodia or Afghanistan. More than 375 deaths and injuries have been recorded so far this year.
The guerrillas say they are fighting for social justice in a country with deep divisions between rich and poor. But even mainstream leftist politicians say the rebels have scant popular support.
Security experts say they expect the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, and the smaller National Liberation Army, or ELN, to keep planting mines because they are effective in preventing soldiers and police from encroaching on their coca fields and the camps they use to hold thousands of kidnap victims.
About 60 percent of Colombia's mine victims are members of state security forces. The remaining 40 percent are civilians, about half of them children who step on the devices while walking to school or playing in the countryside.
There are mine fields on the outskirts of most Colombian towns, littered with a total of more than 100,000 of the devices, the government says.
MORE SENSITIVE NOSES
Police animal trainer Jose Pineda says rats have more sensitive noses than dogs, which should allow them to better sniff out mines in difficult terrain. Plus, he said, they cost less than dogs, eat less, are easier to transport and can wriggle into smaller spaces while hunting.
About a year ago, inspired by a similar pilot program in Mozambique, the police bought this group of rats and were surprised to find that they learned twice as fast as dogs how to sniff out explosives, such as C4, used to make mines.
It takes the police about six months to train mine-sniffing dogs. Training the rats is expected to take about half that time once the program is established.
"They are much smarter than the dogs and up until now it looks like the female rats are smarter than the males," Cifuentes said.
The second-best scorer in the laboratory maze is Lucrecia, with an 83 percent success rate. Males, such as one named Runcho, have lagged until now but may do better in the upcoming field tests.
Pineda said the next phase of training will present new challenges to the rats as they are sure to encounter distractions in the open. They will also have to be sure to keep the males away from Lola, who, on top of having brains, appears to attract them physically.
"Yes, she's, um, popular," Pineda said.