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Rotterdam's rat police unit reports for duty

Posting in Science

Magnum, Poirot, Derrick (the Oberinspektor in a German TV series), and Jansen and Janssen, the Dutch names for the mustachioed duo from Tintin, are the 5-rat crime-fighting squadron in the Dutch port city of Rotterdam, Businessweek reports.

Rats have already been put to work sniffing out landmines in Mozambique, bombs in Colombia, and even tuberculosis in sputum samples from patients in Tanzania.

Now, police have spent two years training these rodents to sniff out certain substances -- drugs, explosives, gunshot residue, fire accelerants, and blood, for example.

The five Rotterdam rat detectives won’t actually travel to crime scenes, and they won’t be permitted to crawl on suspects to sniff them out in the flesh. Instead, they’ll sniff clothes that have been handled by suspects to check for traces of substances linked to criminal activity.

“If a shooting were to take place today and several suspects were arrested, tests for gunshot residue would require chemicals, microscopes, and employees, all taking at least two hours,” says Monique Hamerslag, who trained the rats. “Rats can do the same thing in two seconds.”

While the sniffer rats' findings won’t be admissible in court, they will be used to speed up searches, allowing police to quickly (and cheaply) narrow in on suspects.

These rodents have an average success rate of 95 percent, according to Spiegel International. That’s because rats have 1,000 different receptors crucial to the perception of smells; dogs have 900.

Sadly, there is a downside: training the crime-fighting rats is time consuming, and most live only two or three years.

The team is kept in a darkened room next to storage space for ropes, blankets, and equipment belonging to the canine unit. The horses are nearby as well.

The rats will go into active service as soon as next year, making the Netherlands the first country to use trained rats in civilian police investigations. BBC has a cute video of the team.

[Spiegel International via Businessweek, BBC]

Image: Benjamin Dürr via Spiegel Online

— By on September 17, 2013, 2:51 PM PST

Janet Fang

Contributing Editor

Janet Fang has written for Nature, Discover and the Point Reyes Light. She is currently a lab technician at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. She holds degrees from the University of California, Berkeley and Columbia University. She is based in New York. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure