The remarkable rat

“Ask not what your vermin can do for you …,” quipped my cousin Cindy as we deliberated, through texts, the merits of this much-maligned beast. Prior to our unusual discussion, she’d sent me a news article from Vice World News. It featured the headline, “A Hero’s Retirement Party Awaits This World Famous, Medal-Winning Rat.”

So, here’s the burning question: What do rats mean to you?“Filthy, nasty creatures!” you might respond. “Carriers of pestilence and disease!” you could rightly declare. Yet this story tells a different tale.

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Magawa, a seven-year-old giant African pouched rat (try saying that five times fast), was one of many rats trained to sniff out landmines and even detect certain diseases such as tuberculosis. Born in Tanzania, he was trained for this dangerous work in Belgium, but after a busy five-year stint in Cambodia where he worked tirelessly each day to uncover 71 mines and 38 unexploded bombs, he is retiring this month. His efforts in this field have saved the lives of many innocent people. What an achievement! In recognition of his “dedication, skill and bravery” he was recently awarded the PDSA Gold Medal, which is the animal equivalent of the British George Cross.

As you can well imagine, Magawa became the first rat in history to merit such an esteemed tribute and it immediately shot him to international fame. It was further reported that Magawa was in fine health, apart from a “minor paw injury” and, after a brief period in which he would “mentor” 20 new recruits, he would be attending a lavish retirement party prepared in his honour. Then, his plans include living out his final, golden years in a kennel, resting comfortably, and enjoying a favoured diet of bananas and peanuts. In a final observation, his handler was quoted as saying she, “… would miss working with him very, very much.”

Let us consider this eye-opening news for a moment. After all, it’s not often rats are the hero of the story. Never have we heard of rats meriting prestigious awards for their outstanding courage and service to mankind. I mean, have you ever read of a rat saving someone’s life by dragging them from a burning building? Or how about a rat scampering for help when the owner of the granary they lurk beneath is attacked by wolves? Seldom do we speak to someone who misses having a rat about the place. I can’t think of one, although I know of people who keep snakes as pets, so I suppose those folks are out there — somewhere.

However, my eyes have been now opened and I shall view the lowly rat, at least the giant African pouched variety, with new respect. I even felt a small amount of guilt when Nemo the cat threw up a hairball yesterday and I yelled, “RATS!” Maybe rats deserve better. Perhaps I should find a new expletive like, “Aww slugs!” or “Gully dirt!” which really can’t get much lower on the list of low.

In any case, if you have access to the internet, the story of Magawa is sure to brighten your day and lead you into some scintillating conversations. It sure did for Cindy and me.

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