Strange tail in Netherlands as rats scurry past dogs in crime fighting’s world order
Police in Rotterdam are to become the first to use rats to investigate shootings
Police in the Dutch port of Rotterdam, a major staging point for drugs being imported into Europe, are to become the first in the world to use rats to investigate shootings because of their ability to detect traces of gunpowder.
While they may not be as lovable as man’s best friend, the new sniffer-rats are certainly the cheaper option in these days of tight budgets, say the police authorities, costing less to “recruit”, less to train, and less to look after than the dogs traditionally used to sniff out drugs.
They also have an even more highly developed sense of smell than dogs, says trainer Monique Hamerslag, who first came across rats being trained to sniff out landmines while she was travelling in Africa, and decided to try them out on the criminal underworld at home.
In Mozambique, for example, rats have been used to clear six million square metres of countryside since 2006, uncovering 2,406 landmines, 992 bombs and more than 13,000 small arms left buried after the 15-year-long civil war – and undoubtedly saving thousands of lives.
In Colombia, rats have been used in the war against international drugs cartels to sniff out a whole range of deadly hidden explosives, from ammonium nitrate to TNT.
The problem with sniffer-dogs was that their weight often triggered the explosives, whereas a typical lab rat – Rattus Norvegicus – rarely weighs more than a pound.
In Rotterdam, work won’t be as life-threatening. The rats will be used primarily to identify people who have used guns by detecting invisible gunpowder traces on their skin in the immediate aftermath of shootings, says police spokesman Marc Wiebes.
Their only possible disadvantage is a short life span of just three or four years. On the other hand, rats are prolific and reproduce in a very short time.
As to the economics: for the cost of feeding one dog for a day, their police handlers estimate they can feed seven rats for seven days.
The first five recruits have already been trained by Hamerslag. They’ve been conditioned to follow simple verbal commands, as well as not to be afraid of their human handlers, and have proved themselves in exhaustive tests. They’re now ready for the field, she says confidently.
First they need appropriate names, of course, and a tradition has already been established of calling them after well-known TV detectives – so far, Poirot, Magnum, and the German favourite, Derrick.