An Unlikely Hero In The Killing Fields

The little country of Cambodia, located in South East Asia, has suffered three decades of war. This has taken a severe toll on its citizens. But even though the battles have finally ended, the casualties continue. The victims are often curious young boys who explore the countryside and discover one of the many existing landmines planted decades ago.

The Cambodian Mine Action Authority, established in late 2000 to regulate mine activities, estimates that these demining operations cost a staggering $30 million per year. But the cost of lives and limbs is even more staggering. The Cambodian Mine Victim Information Service has recorded 19,684 people killed by mines since 1979. They also have one of highest rates of amputees in the world, with approximately 40,000 sufferers.

Currently, there are four main demining organizations working in Cambodia – The Cambodian Mine Action Center (CMAC), the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF), The HALO Trust, and the Mines Advisory Group (MAG). At the current rate of funding and activity, it could take up to another 20 years to clear the mines from Cambodia’s soil.

It is extremely dangerous work to locate and disable landmines. They are buried beneath the soil, so they are an invisible threat. Since their housing is typically made of plastic, a metal detector will not find them. Unfortunately, there are no maps or charts to indicate where they are buried.

sniffing-rat

This unlikely hero is doing an important job.

But now, Cambodia is getting a “little” help from an unusual source. Rats! Gambian Pouched Rats to be precise. These rodents were deployed to Cambodia from Tanzania in April by a Belgian non-profit organization, APOPO, to help clear these deadly mines. APOPO has used the rodents for mine-clearing projects in several countries, including Angola, Mozambique, Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam.

One of the biggest advantages of using rats is that landmines pose no danger to them because the rats are not heavy enough to trigger an explosion. These clever rats are trained from the time they are 4 weeks old to sniff out TNT. When they find it, they scratch the ground at the site. 

rat Food_Reward

All the rats ask in return is a little love and a bite of banana.

The team of 15 rats and 18 handlers are still in training mode, but these rats are showing great promise. It takes one of these rats a matter of minutes to find a mine. It could take a human days, and it would be extremely dangerous work. One false move and a limb or a life could be lost.

A typical work day for these rats will find them in a training field, fitted with a harness which is connected by a leash to a matrix that confines the rat to a specific section of the field being searched. The rat sniffs around within this area and reacts when it gets a whiff of dynamite by digging at the target spot. The rats are then rewarded with a bite of banana.

Deploying these little bomb sniffers and their handlers in high numbers could drastically reduce the time needed to remove the deadly mines in Cambodia’s killing fields.

For their handlers, the rats are more than bomb detectors. “They are not just rats, they are like my brothers,” said 41-year-old handler Meas Chamroeun.

Advertisements

Cats and Other Critters

We have three cats. Butterfly is a 16-year-old cantankerous old female. If she had her way the other two cats would disappear. If she was younger and still in fighting condition, she would make that happen. Our other two cats are mother and son, a 2-year-old and a 1-year-old. The mother is Daisy. The son is Shady.

We used to have four cats. Several months ago Shady lost one of his eyes in a cat fight. The cat that attacked him was his own father, Grady. There was too much competition between these two neutered males and we decided that one of them had to leave. We found a great home for Grady. He is the only cat in his new home, but shares the three acres with a dog and a bunch of chickens. He is very happy there.

With the help of a vet, Shady recovered from his injury very well. I thought having lost his 3-D vision might curtail some of his hunting, but I was wrong.

Recently, I was awaken by a persistent click-click noise. I figured it was some sort of critter, dragged in by one of my cats. My first thought was a bird, but I had never heard a bird make a sound like that before. I got out of bed, followed the sound and ended up in the livingroom. I turned on the light and found Shady lying on the couch, facing the wall, his focus near the ceiling. I followed his gaze and saw what he was watching.

possum 2

Shady’s prized capture escaped to the top of the livingroom curtains.

Perched on the curtain rod a few inches from the ceiling, was a little furry fellow about 4 inches long. He was dark-gray with a white face. His pink hairless feet grasped the fabric of the curtain. I even saw his curled up pink tail. I recognized the species right away. This little cutie was a baby opossum, except down here in North Carolina we say ‘possum. He appeared unscathed and seemed rather content on his perch. I’m sure he was relieved to discover that cats don’t climb curtains. At least, not this one.

Obviously, Shady’s plan was to wait patiently for the possum to come down from its safe haven. My plan was totally different. I wanted it out of my house, but alive and safe.

I couldn’t just reach up and grab him. I would surely be bitten. So, I considered my options. The best idea would make use of his instincts, and that meant coaxing him onto another perch. A broom handle was long enough, but too slippery for him to grip. I didn’t want him falling into the jaws of the ever vigilant Shady. I needed to give the handle some texture.

I remembered a roll of shelf lining that I bought recently which is designed to prevent dishes from sliding. It has a mesh design and would be easy for this little guy to grip.

I cut off a few inches of the fabric and wound it around the broom handle. Then secured it with rubber bands. Voila! I had my extraction tool.

possum 1

It was such an awesome moment when the possum curled his tail around my finger.

Now, the hard part, convincing this little critter to move onto the stick. I climbed onto a chair to meet him eye to eye. I spoke to him in a soft voice. He was already calm, I just didn’t want to do anything that would change that. I dared to touch his fur and allowed his tail to curl around my finger. This just might have been a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

He was quite calm for a critter who had climbed the curtains to avoid being eaten. Yet he seemed to trust me not to eat him. I positioned the handle next to him and gently nudged him from behind and he slowly moved toward the broomstick. It took only a few moments before all four feet were securely gripping the handle. He remained calm the entire time. I think he recognized me as his rescuer.

possum 3

The little critter held on for dear life as I transported him to a safer environment.

It was time to transport him to a safer place. I carried the handle horizontally through the house and through the backdoor, careful not to make any sudden moves. I considered the cat too late. I should have locked him in a bedroom. Because, now, he was following me with his eagle eye on the possum, just waiting for it to fall.

Shady followed me the good long distance I walked from the house to one of our smaller trees. It was actually harder to convince the critter to move onto the tree than it was the broom handle. All the while, Shady was watching and waiting for a mishap.

The critter finally moved on to the tree and clung to a branch. I said good-bye and good luck to the precious little creature, saying a silent prayer for his or her safety and a family reunion by daybreak. I then picked up the cat, carried him to the house, and scolded him for bringing home yet another critter.

I then locked the pet door so he couldn’t run back out to the tree that our little friend was clinging to. I was determined that the poor little thing would be safe for this one night, at least.

I never saw the possum again. I checked the tree. If I ever see it again it would have been because Shady had found it. It may not fare as well a second time. I like to imagine that the little cutie found its mother and siblings by daybreak.

~~~

Not surprising, this episode did not end Shady’s hunting. Early this Saturday morning I took an injured bunny away from him with the faint hope of nursing it back to health. But, sadly, its injuries were too severe. It died less than 24 hours later.

These adventures don’t always end with a “happily ever after.”

Who Would You Like to Eat Today?

In 1931, Winston Churchill predicted a future in which all the world’s meat would be grown in labs. Churchill asked, “What, was the sense in raising a whole chicken merely for the sake of its wings or breast meat?” Where did he come up with that idea? What kind of mad science was he privy to in the early 1930s that caused him to predict lab-produce meat? Can you imagine the funny looks and the gossip that followed such a statement?

That would be the equivalent to President Obama predicting that in the future we will be visiting cantinas on Mars and taking honeymoon trips on the actual moon.

Its been 84 years since Churchill’s odd prediction, but he has finally been vindicated. He wasn’t crazy after all, he was quite the visionary. Because, right now, there are several labs working on that exact problem. The world’s population is growing, yet the earth has only a finite amount of land. 30% of the Earth’s inhabitable land mass is used for the production of meat. If we could reduce that to 5%, new villages, towns, and cities could take the place of factory farms.

Most people who witness the way animals are treated in factory farms would categorize it as cruelty. These farms also have a measurable negative impact on the environment. Antibiotics are used on these animals to reduce loss from disease. Growth hormones are given to animals to fatten them up so they can get the to market quicker. As consumers of this meat, we also ingest these antibiotics and growth hormones to the possible detriment of our own health. On the other hand, lab grown meat removes all these issues. The amount of land needed to produce the same amount of meat is drastically reduced and other environmental issues are eliminated.

The process of growing meat in the lab still requires an animal, but the animal is not killed. One cow would replace many thousands. The process starts with a small biopsy of a cow’s myoblast cells (also known as stem cells). The cow is not slaughtered. These myoblast cells multiply, increasing in volume until they have reached the desired mass. Once the first batch of meat is grown, the next batch could be started with a sampling of the first.

This method of growing meat in a lab can offer so much more than just replicas of beef, pork, and chicken. Imagine tasting the meat of a rare species, like Polar Bear or Python. Artisan blends created by famous chefs could be developed.

One of these meat producing companies, Bitelabs, is adding an even wilder twist to this concept. And to be honest, it is a little creepy. Bitelabs is going to offer celebrity meat. That’s right, meat cultured from a biposy from a celebrity donor. I am not aware of any celebrity who has signed up for this, yet. But Bitelabs is urging tweeters to tweet their favorite celebrities and urge them to offer a little of piece of themselves in the interest of science.

This idea may have the unintended consequence of shining daylight on vampires, cannibals, necrophiliacs, and Jeffrey Daumer wanna-bes. We may be sorry we opened up that can of worms.

If you decide to tweet some celebrities about this novel way to connect with their fans, make sure you are selecting the right celebrity. I would personally not tweet the likes of Charlie Sheen because of all the bad stuff he puts into his body.

It might be a better choice to convince someone like Ellen DeGeneres who became a vegan after watching footage taken at slaughterhouses and dairy farms. Since she is so opposed to the way livestock is treated, she might be the first celebrity to get behind this science. She could go down in history as the first edible talk show host.

If Bitelabs is looking for a catchy product name they might consider “Soylent Green”. That’s the title of a 1973 sci-fi movie, starring Charlton Heston. It takes place in our not too distant future (the year 2022) and portrays an overpopulated world facing food shortages and starvation.

With our global population tipping the scale at 7-billion people, the dystopian world depicted in this movie may be predicting our real future, which includes a bio-engineered food source called Soylent Green that is distributed to the population on Tuesdays only.

Below is a very short clip showing Charlton Heston’s character revealing the secret ingredient in the government-supplied food, Soylent Green.