The Value of Rats News that Colombia plans to use rats to help authorities search for illegal drugs prompts reflections on other types of services these often-reviled rodents might provide.

The Value of Rats

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Secretary Rumsfeld declared this week that no man is irreplaceable. Still, it can be shattering when a man has to grasp personally how easily he can be swapped out. That happened to me last night. A news story from Bogotá, Colombia reports that police there are training rats to sniff out bombs and landmines. More than 100,000 land mines are believed to litter the country after 40 years of internal warfare.

That's the serious news story. The side story is that those sniffer rats are replacing dogs. Rats are considered more desirable for bomb detection because they weigh less than dogs and are less likely to set off a mine if they stand on it. They are less expensive to feed and keep than dogs. And if they do set off a mine, the police just lose a rat, which the public consider vermin, not a dog, or our companions.

But who will replace rats when the Bogotá Police decide to cut more costs? Newts? They just eat worms and insects. And who will work cheaper than the newts? Dung beetles? Their dietary requirements are even more humble. When will this outsourcing madness cease?

I was reading the story late last night when a mouse scurried under the radiator cover in my office. Mice have been frequently observed here over the last few months scuttling across hallways and nibbling the remains of pad thai and chili glazed tofu.

An all staff memo warns our habits of keeping snacks close at hand means we continue to feed the vermin. They won't take bait because they're already full from better meals right at hand. Now I know these are mice, not rats, as in Colombia, but our library says that mice are rodents with bodies less than 12 centimeters long, while rats are rodents with bodies longer than 12 centimeters. The difference is just a silly centimeter.

Building managers have set out mouse traps and poisons but the problem persists. The mice are becoming so visible they sit in on editorial meetings and they're commentators on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Last night the reality struck me. The mice are being trained to replace us. Not the engineers. What they do requires skill and craft. What I do requires more or less just opening your mouth and being willing to swallow anything.

Mice can be model employees. They're hungry and will work for crumbs. Mice don't call in sick and if you fire them, you don't have to worry about some protracted lawsuit. You just show them a piece of cheese and let nature, or a spring trap, take its course. Mice have to be better than I am at pronouncing scientific and foreign language names. I try to avoid saying the name of the king of Nepal the way some people run around their backhand shots.

Last night I think I saw the mouse who will replace me and I have to admit, I think there's a certain superficial similarity.

(Soundbite of song I'm a Happy Mouse)

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