Why we have drug sniffing squirrels, but not drug-sniffing rats

The latest from Team Trash

Welcome to Team Trash, a newsletter about the places where humans and wildlife meet. I'm Bethany Brookshire, science journalist and author of the book Pests: How Humans Create Animal Villains. If you haven't bought that book you definitely should. Not that I'm biased or anything.

Hello, hi. Do you have a moment to talk about drug-sniffing squirrels?

I mean, that's a trick question honestly because of course you do.

Because yes there are drug-sniffing squirrels and they are not high on cocaine (I hope). Nope these are Eurasian red squirrels in China, and Chinese officials are training them to be deployed in places like warehouses to sniff out illegal drugs.

What's NOT to love about this idea. Can't you picture them in little "service squirrel" vests? I also think it might be awesome to employ them in airports because a squirrel racing up your leg could be both adorable and also terrifying.

But I was also struck by how this has taken years.

Still, this squad was a first because it took the police years to be confident that they were correctly training rodents for these kinds of operations. “Our techniques in training rodents was not mature enough before,” Yin said.

- The Washington Post (which I am correctly name this time!)

And yeah, techniques in training squirrels probably aren't mature enough.

But techniques in training RATS sure are! You've probably heard, for example, of landmine-sniffing rats. Training in those cases would be very similar to training to sniff out drugs. Scientists studying rat behavior can train rats to do some truly fantastic things. Swim toward platforms they can't see, for example. Run complex mazes. If squirrels can get into tight spots and up and down large stacks of things, well, rats can too, and are limited only by the size of their skulls.

Rats and squirrels are different of course, and squirrels DO have some skills that rats do not. For example, they can rotate their ankles 180 degrees, which means they can go down vertical surfaces head-first. It's quite a talent. Their spatial memories are second to none. But honestly if it's between a rat and a squirrel, I would think the research is on the rat side.

So why train a squirrel? This is just my opinion, but I think it has a lot to do with the fact that squirrels are rats with better PR. The idea of releasing a small legion of rats (even if they're wearing little "service rat" vests) into, say, a warehouse full of food to check for illegal drugs probably gives a lot of people the crawling heebie-jeebies.

But why? Rats and squirrels both gleefully dine on garbage. Both get fleas and ticks. Being rodents they can even both get plague. But only one has become associated in our minds with our sewage and our garbage. Because only one has become so closely associated with us.

Squirrels, you see, are still wildlife to most people. They're still far enough away to be cute. And so we'll put piles of training and development into working with them, even when we already know how to work with rats.

Where have you been? 

And it is looking in the mirror and asking yourself "am I a fish"? Because some fish, it seems, pass the mirror test for self-awareness. Thus far, they do not voluntarily take selfies.

How does a tiny, parasitic little fruit spread itself around? Bunny bowels, of course. An endangered rabbit chows down on these bizarre, mushroomish looking bright red fruits and spreads their seeds in the process.

My former colleague at Science News, the talented Ashley Yeager, got a new heart. Really, a whole new heart, and now she's writing a newsletter about the process. It's worth a subscribe, and not just because I'm so, so glad she's still with us.

Where have I been?

First, hiding my blushes. Because LAST week I said that beautiful starling piece was from the NYT and it wasn't! It was from the Washington Post! My face, it is so red.

But I also got to do a Q&A with Audubon Magazine! Very excited to share the story of Pests with the true bird nerds. Check it out!

I've got a virtual event coming up at San Jose State University, I'm both pleased and terrified to be talking with the philosophy department about my book on February 23! Pleased because there's a lot of philosophy in this book, and terrified because what if I've forgotten all the philosophy in this book? Anyway it's virtual and you can sign up!

AND if you're in Boston don't forget! I'll be at Harvard's science center giving a talk on March 20 and I'd love to see people there!