Do you want the answer to a trivia question?
The first rat to win the highest civilian award for an animal was named Magawa.
Wait, they give awards to animals? Yes. Yes, they do.
Wait, they give awards to animals who aren't trained dogs helping the military or monkeys going up in space rockets? Yep.
Do you want the answer to another trivia question?
Magawa won the award for his work sniffing out landmines in Cambodia so that they could be safely removed. He is credited with helping clear 35 acres of Cambodia, one of the most heavily mined countries in the world.
Magawa the Landmine-Sniffing Rat was awarded a gold medal (pictured above) by the People's Dispensary for Sick Animals, a British charity for animals.
(The PDSA does not appear to have any relationship to Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson and "the People's Elbow.")
Though singled out for honors, Magawa is one of many specially trained rats who can check a tennis-court-sized chunk of land in 30 minutes. A human with a metal detector would need four days to accomplish the same feat.
Weighing only three pounds, Magawa and other rats don't set off the landmines. Their exceptional noses detect the scent of explosive chemicals.
The Global Problem of Landmines
Cambodia is one of 59 countries where landmines threaten people's safety. Landmines have been planted in times of war, but they remain unexploded for years, even decades, after a war's end.
Some people killed or injured by a landmine in Cambodia, Vietnam, or Afghanistan may not have even been born when the landmine was planted.
APOPO is a nonprofit based in Tanzania who trains African rats to sniff out landmines, including Magawa. They represent a small but successful part of the effort to eradicate landmines.
With more funding, APOPO can train more rats as well as develop other uses for their sensitive noses.
Could Animals Change Healthcare?
Stop and let it sink into your brain that a 3-pound rat can detect landmines about 200 times faster than a human with a metal detector.
What else could animals perform better than humans?
We have bomb-sniffing, drug-sniffing dogs, of course, but dogs can smell cancer, too. APOPO trains them to smell tuberculosis.
What other diseases could animals detect faster, easier, cheaper, and better than humans and their best technology?
People living in rural areas like Missouri (and much of the Midwest) may lack access to quality healthcare. In my rural corner of Missouri, people must drive 45 minutes to the nearest hospital.
An ambulance may take as long as half an hour to get out to your backroad driveway and then still have a mile to go.
One day, perhaps trained dogs could help diagnose disease in rural areas. Saving long drives to MRI machines and CT scans that some rural people can't easily swing, not to mention the exorbitant cost of an MRI or CT scan.
With easier, faster diagnoses, people can begin receiving the necessary interventions sooner.
Magawa may very well become the answer to a trivia question, but he's also an example of how even small creatures can prove to be very useful, even heroic.