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Everything you think you know about rats is wrong.

Think they're dirty? Wrong. They spend hours cleaning themselves every day.

Think they were responsible for the bubonic plague? Wrong again. It was fleas, who were just as likely to be found on cats, dogs, and even gerbils!


Think they're ugly? Wrong, wrong, wrong. Rats are cute! Just look at this little guy.

This rat's name is Jones. And he is a hero. All images courtesy of APOPO.

And then there are African giant pouched rats. You won't believe what they can do.

We've known for a while that rats are capable of learning complex tasks, and that they're smart enough to care about each other.

I can actually vouch for their intellect firsthand. I had a major rat problem in my house a number of years back, and the rats were frighteningly good at getting out of and evading traps. (While I appreciated their intelligence, that doesn't mean I wanted them nesting in my bed.)

But the folks over at APOPO, an organization headquartered in Tanzania, have found a way to put those smarts to really good use.

The rats they train aren't just navigating mazes. They're saving lives.

Rats can sniff out land mines. I repeat. Rats can sniff out land mines!

The rats are tethered to little leashes to keep them on track, and they cover a TON of ground this way.

How's that for a daily dose of awesome?

See, dozens of countries around the world are affected by a deadly problem known as "land mine contamination," meaning they have tons of leftover explosives from conflicts past and present scattered across the landscape.

The usual process of clearing these mines is painfully slow and highly dangerous.

Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times writes, "Typically, men in body armor walk in precise rows holding metal detectors in front of them. Whenever they come across metal, they stop and painstakingly brush away the soil until they see what it is."

Metal detectors? That's amateur hour.

That sounds ... tedious. And like it's a pretty good way to get yourself blown up.

The rats, who are too light to set off the mines, are able to quickly sniff out the explosives and then paw at the ground when they detect something. From there, the mines can be safely cleared.

APOPO says a team of rats takes about 20 minutes to sweep the same area that would take a human team about four days. Even better? The rats can sometimes be more accurate because they aren't distracted by scrap metal, according to the organization.

They also look pretty dang adorable on those little leashes.

But that's not all! Rats can also detect tuberculosis with a quick wiggle of their nose.

High-five!

TB, a highly contagious and potentially fatal lung infection, is a huge problem in certain counties. The disease was actually declared a national emergency in Mozambique a few years back.

Doctors in these areas have been desperate for a faster, more accurate way to diagnose patients.

Time to call in the rats.

Here's how it works: TB clinics collect sputum samples (basically, saliva and phlegm) from suspected patients and do an initial check. According to APOPO, doctors are only able to identify about half of the samples correctly this way.

The samples are then put in front of a team of trained rats that are able to double check large amounts of them with lightning speed, identifying thousands of missed positives in the process.

Rats are gross all right — grossly underappreciated.

D'awww.

We've gotta get over this idea that rats are yucky. And I'll be the first to admit that I've let my ... complicated history with rats color my better judgment for years.

Well no more.

Rats have earned my respect. And while I'd appreciate a comfortable distance between them and the food in my pantry, if sharing the occasional meal with them is the price I need to pay for the work they're doing, so be it.

They've earned it.

If you feel the same, you can start by "adopting" your own APOPO HEROrat to help pay for its intensive training.

Check out the video below to learn even more about why it's time to "Rethink Rats."

Photo: Jason DeCrow for United Nations Foundation

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