Where would we be without rats and vultures? We might think we’d be a lot better off. But evidence continues to mount that working with Nature’s wildly varied cast of characters is far better for our health than making holes in the web of life by trying to wipe them out.

For instance, the African Giant Pouched Rat is proving itself invaluable for reclaiming land and saving lives. And the lowly, smelly vulture became conspicuous by its absence in India after approximately 40,000,000 of Nature’s winged garbage collection/recycling units were accidentally wiped out in a mere two decades through the introduction of a drug that was used to treat livestock.

In the absence of these foul fowl, carcasses rotted, a horrible stench rose, disease spread, and feral dogs feasted and bred – turning India into the world’s leader in rabies cases. Now livestock are being treated with a drug that is not toxic to vultures, in hopes that the grim-looking undertaker birds will make a comeback that helps restore the environmental balance.

Of course, landmine and TB detection are not natural occupations of the African Giant Pouched Rats. But now these highly trainable, long-lived creatures are on the job saving lives in Mozambique, Angola, Thailand and Cambodia.

Who could have predicted their untapped potential? Only someone who has played and raised rodents of every persuasion since childhood. Bart Weetjens is the founder of Apopo, the Belgian NGO headquartered in Tanzania whose stated mission is “training rats to save human lives by detecting land mines and tuberculosis.”

The statistics of the rodents’ success rate – posted on the Apopo web site – are awe-inspiring. They include 48,844 land mines and UXO detected and destroyed; 914,452 people freed from the threat of explosives; and 25,900 TB infections halted.

What makes rats such lifesavers for humans is their amazing sense of smell. About 1% of a rat’s genes are devoted to odor detection – as opposed to 1/1000th of human genes. Rats have a sniff rate four times that of our own. And they can distinguish between two separate odors at once. It is this stellar nasal prowess that enables them to ‘rat out’ early signs of TB in an infected person’s saliva – hours before a test can determine it – and sniff out land mines without setting them off.

Who knows what hidden talents and crucial roles other creatures might possess or play? What we do know is that respect for Nature – and for a child’s sometimes creepy hobbies – has the potential to improve our quality of life.

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News summary by Laurel Airica – creator/performer of WordMagic