DeanZine - May 2004


  State of the Universe Report  






Bomb-sniffing Rats trained to locate land-mines!

African Pouch Rats trained by Belgians to sniff TNT in buried landmines!

Last month I wrote about a renegade black hole hurtling towards us at a rapid pace, threatening to engulf us in a singularity of nothingness, where all the familiar rules of time and space cease to exist, where the very essence of reality becomes distorted and transformed in ways we, mere earthlings,  are unequipped to even fathom, given our tiny, dinky human brains.

Is it just me, or has this already happened?

Have we already, unknowingly, slipped over the line of an event horizon, only to find ourselves lost in an irrational universe where logic, well... defies logic and where 'cause and effect' are just a comedy duo debuting their latest act at the Fringe.

The picture above was reprinted from an article in the New York Times, published May 18, 2004 (note: even though they're supposedly the 'paper of record' that doesn't mean they didn't make the whole thing up; but just so you know that I didn't make the whole thing up).

As the article explains in great detail, a company from Belgium is training giant African rats as bomb-sniffing, landmine detectors. Apparently these huge rodents work for bananas, are at least as effective as dogs and owing to their light weight (about 1kg) are less likely to blow themselves up if they place one of their tiny paws on a live mine. Their trainers even claim that they are more diligent workers than dogs and can be transported more easily and, thus, less expensively than the traditional bomb-sniffing canine.

The rats (they're from Gambia, by the way), wearing tiny nylon harnesses and tethered to their trainers by a 10 foot leash, proved successful in their first real-world test-trials sniffing out explosives in live minefields in Mozambique, an African country that is littered with land mines from decades of civil war.

With something like 100 million landmines buried around the world killing or injuring around 50 people a day (mostly kids), an efficient bomb-sniffer is certainly desirable. Of course, not burying 100 million land-mines would be somewhat more desirable, but what with the sad demise of Princess Di, the anti-landmine lobby doesn't seem to be getting much ink these days (or phosphor, seeing as most people get their news, these days, from TV or online).

So, in the spirit of entrepreneurship, one industry begets another, and as long as the military industrial complex insists on churning out an estimated 10 million new landmines a year it would appear that these giant rats  can look forward to successful careers and job security for a long time to come. Considering, however, that the cost of training one of these rats is a mere $2,000 compared to the $10,000 cost of  training a bomb-sniffing dog, I think the bomb-sniffing dog union has legitimate cause for concern.

Now, let's not lose our place here. Remember, we're talking about a bunch of Belgians teaching bomb-sniffing rats from Gambia to sniff out landmines in Mozambique. I don't know where the bananas come from.

Like I said, if I was a bomb-sniffing canine I might be worried, but it's not just the rats I'd have to be on the lookout for.

These are pigs. Israeli pigs, no less. Curious, considering they're not exactly what you'd call 'kosher'. In fact, they're pretty much the poster boys (or sows) for 'non-kosher'. Even so, according to BBC reports, the Israeli army has been attempting to exploit their porcine prowess as truffle-snufflers in the pursuit of the perfect bomb-sniffing swine.

Which means, don't be too surprised if you turn on CNN one day soon to see video of an Israeli bomb-squad officer patrolling the west bank with his bomb-sniffing pig, ambling six feet ahead of him on a leash. He won't be looking for tasty truffles.

And as if bomb-sniffing Gambian rats and Israeli pigs weren't enough, let's not leave out Montana's bomb-sniffing honeybees. That's right - honeybees. As we speak, scientists at the University of Montana are training honeybees as an efficient and low-cost means to screen large areas for hidden explosives. 

Apparently, training bees (and pigs and rats) is similar to training dogs. Bees are conditioned to associate an odor, such as the explosive material TNT, with a reward. In practice sessions, a sugar-water feeder and traces of explosives are set up near a colony. Like Pavlov's dogs and Skinner's pigeons, as the bees feed, they begin to associate the explosive's odor with the food source. As foragers, the bees will search an area for similar odors and continue to look for hours, or even days, with appropriate reinforcement. No wonder they call them busy bees.

It gets even weirder. The bees also train each other. For example, if multiple hives are needed to cover a large area, only one hive needs to be trained. Researchers say the bees from the trained hive will naturally recruit and teach the bees from the other hives.

A hive of 40,000 to 65,000 bees costs around $100 and can be trained in just a couple of hours.  In tests, the honeybees swarmed areas where explosive residue was present. The insects had a 98 percent success rate.

But if fuzzy li'l honeybees seem too sweet and innocent for such a potentially lethal pursuit, consider the bomb-sniffing parasitic wasp. Some guy from the Netherlands, a Dr. Wacker (Wacko?), has designed a box-like apparatus into which he inserts an explosive-sniffing, trained wasp. When the wasp waggles his antennae, that indicates he smells explosive residue in the vicinity; the device senses this waggling and emits a warning beep.

So, to sum up: We've got Gambian landmine-sniffing rats in Mozambique, explosive-snuffling Israeli pigs on the Gaza strip, bomb-buzzing honeybees in Montana, and some Dutch professor with TNT-antennae waggling wasps in a box. And we've barely mentioned man's best friend, the dutiful canine, who's been performing this thankless detection task for decades with hardly any compensation or recognition at all, save an occasional bone.

Am I missing something here?

Does all of this seem just a trifle odd?

Have we lost our collective minds? 

What is this rat thinking?

What are we thinking?

Are we thinking?

I have no immediate conclusions to draw from all this; although, obviously, we ought to find some way to  halt the manufacture and deployment of landmines.

But I'm just as troubled by the giddy surrealism of it all. It almost makes war, conflict, death and destruction seem adorable! Soft and cuddly even!

It's no secret that, for years, the US Navy has been training dolphins and seals for underwater demolition tasks. Attach an underwater charge to a ship's hull, and, hopefully, swim away before the thing blows up.

Is it that much of a leap to envision AK carrying Koala bears? Or Paramilitary Penguins? G.I. Giraffes? Anti-aircraft Anteaters? Paratrooping Pandas? Insurgent Sturgeon?

And is it right that we use these creatures to solve our military proliferation problems?

Here's a proposal: Put representatives from each of these species - a rat, a pig, a honeybee, a wasp, a dog... and us - into a fenced-off area, peppered with buried landmines. Whoever makes it out alive, gets to run the planet for the next 100 years.

Believe me, if the pig or the dog or the rat or the bee won (I'm not too sure about the wasp), things couldn't possibly get any weirder around here than they already are.

I believe that all the visible evidence strongly suggests that, without our even realizing it, we've already been swallowed up by an enormous black hole and been summarily spit out into an alternate universe where reality is standing on its head, sanity is on a vacation cruise, common sense is on the lam and rats, pigs and honeybees are gainfully employed cleaning up our military messes.

Sniff, sniff... BOOOM!!!


PS: Comments, criticisms and complaints are always welcome.



  Online Sources:

Bomb-sniffing rats:

Bomb-sniffing pigs:

Bomb-sniffing bees:

Bomb-sniffing wasps:




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