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A giant rat that wasn't suited for its bomb-sniffing job gets a new role

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Now, though, we turn to rats. And let's face it, there is not a lot of love for them.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ERIC ADAMS: I hate rats.

SUMMERS: That's New York City Mayor Eric Adams.

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

And he is hardly alone in that opinion. Just ask New York's newly appointed rat czar.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KATHLEEN CORRADI: No more dirty curbs, unmanaged spaces or brazen burrowing. There's a new sheriff in town.

(LAUGHTER)

CORRADI: And with your help, we'll send those rats packing.

PFEIFFER: But Cari Inserra, the San Diego Zoo's lead wildlife care specialist, is telling a different rat tale.

CARI INSERRA: Runa is her name.

SUMMERS: Runa is a Gambian pouched rat, also called an African giant pouched rat. She arrived at the zoo just a few weeks ago. And she is no ordinary street rat. She's much bigger, for one thing, weighing around 3 pounds. She's also part of an elite pack of so-called HeroRATs, which were trained by the nonprofit organization APOPO.

INSERRA: The rodents learn to identify the scent of TNT, and they're able to locate undetonated landmines.

PFEIFFER: The rats have a nose for other dangers, too, like illegal trafficking of animals and plants.

INSERRA: The rats can alert their handlers to the fact that one of those items is in that shipping container, even through a sense that they might try to mask it over, like, a coffee - very strong coffee smell.

SUMMERS: Now, not all HeroRATs can be heroes out in the field, like Runa, who was rattled by the demands of her old position.

INSERRA: One of the final tests of the rats that work in the field for land mine detection is, you know, you need to go to a brand new field of dirt and be, you know, ready to do your job. And so that was where we were told she had some challenges - was being out in the open, in new spaces.

PFEIFFER: But she's gotten more confident in her new job at the San Diego Zoo. She's now considered a rat ambassador, showing off the surprising virtues of her species. People are often hesitant to meet her at first, but then...

INSERRA: We start telling the story, and then we get to bring her out. And their whole demeanor changes, and it's a really great experience to watch.

SUMMERS: (Laughter) Sacha, it sounds like she maybe works better as a bureaucrat.

PFEIFFER: Oh, so cheesy.

SUMMERS: Sorry (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF ANDERSON .PAAK SONG, "TWILIGHT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.
Sacha Pfeiffer is a correspondent for NPR's Investigations team and an occasional guest host for some of NPR's national shows.
Tinbete Ermyas