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A giant rat that wasn't suited for its bomb-sniffing job gets a new role

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Now, though, we turn to rats. And let's face it, there is not a lot of love for them.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ERIC ADAMS: I hate rats.

SUMMERS: That's New York City Mayor Eric Adams.

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

And he is hardly alone in that opinion. Just ask New York's newly appointed rat czar.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KATHLEEN CORRADI: No more dirty curbs, unmanaged spaces or brazen burrowing. There's a new sheriff in town.

(LAUGHTER)

CORRADI: And with your help, we'll send those rats packing.

PFEIFFER: But Cari Inserra, the San Diego Zoo's lead wildlife care specialist, is telling a different rat tale.

CARI INSERRA: Runa is her name.

SUMMERS: Runa is a Gambian pouched rat, also called an African giant pouched rat. She arrived at the zoo just a few weeks ago. And she is no ordinary street rat. She's much bigger, for one thing, weighing around 3 pounds. She's also part of an elite pack of so-called HeroRATs, which were trained by the nonprofit organization APOPO.

INSERRA: The rodents learn to identify the scent of TNT, and they're able to locate undetonated landmines.

PFEIFFER: The rats have a nose for other dangers, too, like illegal trafficking of animals and plants.

INSERRA: The rats can alert their handlers to the fact that one of those items is in that shipping container, even through a sense that they might try to mask it over, like, a coffee - very strong coffee smell.

SUMMERS: Now, not all HeroRATs can be heroes out in the field, like Runa, who was rattled by the demands of her old position.

INSERRA: One of the final tests of the rats that work in the field for land mine detection is, you know, you need to go to a brand new field of dirt and be, you know, ready to do your job. And so that was where we were told she had some challenges - was being out in the open, in new spaces.

PFEIFFER: But she's gotten more confident in her new job at the San Diego Zoo. She's now considered a rat ambassador, showing off the surprising virtues of her species. People are often hesitant to meet her at first, but then...

INSERRA: We start telling the story, and then we get to bring her out. And their whole demeanor changes, and it's a really great experience to watch.

SUMMERS: (Laughter) Sacha, it sounds like she maybe works better as a bureaucrat.

PFEIFFER: Oh, so cheesy.

SUMMERS: Sorry (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF ANDERSON .PAAK SONG, "TWILIGHT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Juana Summers
Juana Summers is a co-host of NPR's All Things Considered, alongside Ailsa Chang, Ari Shapiro and Mary Louise Kelly. She joined All Things Considered in June 2022.
Sacha Pfeiffer
Sacha Pfeiffer is a correspondent for NPR's Investigations team and an occasional guest host for some of NPR's national shows.
Tinbete Ermyas
Vincent Acovino