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ScienceI’m George Greer, medical director of the Heffter Institute that researches psilocybin. AMA!

Dec 6th 2016 by HeffterResearch • 38 Questions • 139 Points

My short bio: Dr. Cindy Fast holds a Ph.D. and Master’s degree in Psychology specialising in Learning and Behaviour and Behavioural Neuroscience from UCLA. Cindy has more than ten years of experience conducting behavioural research with a variety of species including rats, mice, pigeons, hermit crabs, and horses.

In September Cindy moved from the US to take on her new role at APOPO. Dr. Fast plans to use her knowledge and expertise to optimize training and performance of the HeroRATs.

My Proof: Dr. Cindy Fast with Jones the HeroRAT.

About APOPO: APOPO is a non-profit that trains rats to save lives. Based in Tanzania, the organisation has pioneered the development of scent detection rats, nicknamed HeroRATs.

APOPO's landmine detection rats have helped sniff out more than 100,000 mines helping to free nearly one million people from the threat of explosives.

APOPO's tuberculosis detection rats have safely sniffed more than 350,000 sputum samples identifying 10,000 additional cases of TB that were missed by clinics.

APOPO website - https://www.apopo.org/en/

Adopt or gift a HeroRAT - https://support.apopo.org/en/adopt

Donate - https://support.apopo.org/en/donate

Dr. Fast will begin answering questions at 12pm EST.

EDIT - It's late night in Tanzania and Dr Fast has had to retire for the evening. Our Fundraising Manager, Robin Toal, will take over from here on out but will need to report back on any particularly tricky questions. Big thanks for all your questions, it's been a blast!

EDIT 2 - It's time to say goodnight (UK here). I'll pop back in the morning and will ask Dr Fast to answer a selection of the questions we didn't get to tonight. Thanks for your questions and if you're looking for a holiday gift you can't go wrong with a HeroRAT adoption.

Q:

If you could choose how the laws that governed psilocybin where changed, what would you do and how would you incorporate it into the medical world and society?

A:

What's the strangest thing you saw in the back of house areas?


Q:

Holy shit. This is amazing. Thanks for all your hard work. I haven't checked out the website yet, but just dream reading the short bio, it sounds like you (and APOPO) are doing amazing work.

My questions:

Which countries does your organization operate in? Are there some countries the rats work better than others in?

Also, they look adorable (and HUGE). How are they to work with and train? Do they pick things up faster or slower than other animals you've worked with and do you have a favorite? :)

A:

Heffter was not created to advocate for changes to federal drug policy but rather to explore unanswered scientific questions and to help determine how medicines like psilocybin can alleviate suffering among patients who are not benefitting from available treatments.

Heffter scientists believe psilocybin research has the potential to improve the lives of millions of people, and that potential is best achieved when psilocybin is administered by a doctor with special training and used in a therapeutic setting.


Q:

Oh my god I could go on for days about that. One thing that stands out was a special event where they needed 16 Mickeys all set out in various rooms and seeing all of them backstage was really weird.

A:

Thanks! APOPO currently works in Angola, Mozambique, Cambodia, and Tanzania. We aim to start TB detection in Ethiopia and landmine detection in Zimbabwe next year.

We are focused on solving humanitarian problems in developing countries. TB detection works the same wherever we are in the world but landmine clearance is affected by the different environments. In Cambodia we have discovered that the surface tends to be rockier than in the sub-Saharan countries we have worked previously but the rats quickly overcame these new challenges.

The rats are truly a pleasure to work with (if you're lucky, you'll even get a sweet lick or two) and they are quick and eager learners. It's a bit difficult to compare how quickly they learn compared to other species because I've never trained any other animals to detect landmines or tuberculosis! Overall, I'd say they are pretty similar to a dog or typical labrat. I try to make it a point to not develop favorites, but because Nala was the very first rat I met when I arrived, I think she stole a special place in my heart.


Q:

I'm interested to know on which ways it will improve symptoms of depression and anxiety - after all these conditions are multifaceted, and whilst they may help some symptoms do they worsen others at all?

A:

how do you survive on really hot days?


Q:

Are there many landmines with tuberculosis?

A:

It is too early to know the ways it will improve these symptoms. We know it helps those symptoms in cancer patients, but they are in a different situation from people without cancer. Some people do feel more anxious during psilocybin treatment, but with professional support they are able to get through this anxiety.


Q:

Practice actually. It was absolute torture the first month (and especially the first parade) but after a few months I got used to it and after a few years I would forget I had the costume on.

A:

Please don't give them any ideas!


Q:

A friend used psilocybin, from mushrooms (one time dose) to aid him to quit smoking cigarettes. He said that as he started feeling the effects of the mushrooms, he smokes a few cigs. and got pretty sick. After the sickness passed he just relaxed and enjoyed the rest of the night. He hasn't smoked in nearly 2 years now.

What is your opinion regarding the science behind this?

A:

Any good stories about your magical moments? In 20 years surely you got some good ones...


Q:

There are special cemeteries and memorials for dogs who do military work and such. Do you hope to see us give the same amount of recognition to specially trained rats?

A:

Smokers in a research study had similar results, but they had psychiatric screening beforehand plus special therapy to help them quit smoking, too. There is no systematic scientific research on people taking psilocybin mushrooms on their own to quit smoking, and that is definitely something that is not recommended because of safety concerns.


Q:

I have one moment that stands out above all the rest. I was waiting for someone to ask me this question. It's the reason I left a good job as a VIP Tourguide and moved to the Character Department.

I was working City Hall one day when two guests came in with two little girls. One was in a wheel chair and the other one looked like she had just seen death. Both were cut and bruised and the one in the wheelchair had her arm in a cast. The two women were actually nurses from a hospital and were asking for a refund on the girl's tickets, something we avoided doing at all costs. When I asked why they told me the story. The two girls were with their mom and dad at Epcot and on the way home they got into a horrible car accident. The mother was beheaded right in front of them. The father eventually died too but the two girls didn't know that yet. They were from overseas and had no money and no contact information for anyone they knew. They were bringing the tickets back to get the girls some much needed money to help get them back home. My heart absolutely sunk. If you had seen these girls you'd know why. They were truly traumatized. I refunded their tickets and got permission to be their private tour guide for the rest of the day (which they were not expecting). I walked them to the VIP viewing area for the parade which was as far as I could walk them in the costume we used to wear at City Hall. I had to leave them there while I put on my VIP costume. On the way down I pulled out every kid joke I could think of. I was a REALLY good tour guide (I helped write part of it) and I knew how to make kids smile. Nothing worked. These girls were too far gone for that. I left them at the bridge to go change, walked backstage and bawled my eyes out. I just had never seen something so horrible. I was truly affected and it was a terrible feeling of powerlessness not being able to fix the situation. When I came back I brought them to get ice-cream, take them on rides and stuff but they never smiled, not once. The nurses were loving it and were trying to get them into it but it just wasn't working. We went back to the bridge to watch the parade. It was there that I honestly saw true magic. Real magic, not bullshit. I had called the parade department to let them know what was going on and set up a private meet and greet after the parade. As the parade was coming around Liberty Square I told the girls that I had called Mickey and told them all about them. I told them that Mickey asked to meet them after the parade.

The little girl in the wheelchair smiled.

"Really?" she asked. My heart skipped. "Yes, really! He told me to tell you to look out for him in the parade and to follow the float back to City Hall."

The other girl smiled.

"You mean right now?" she asked.

It had worked. They were talking. Not laughing, but talking. It was the first time I had heard them speak. Every single parade performer came up to them on the bridge and told them to look out for Mickey. Every one of them told them that. When Mickey's float came up Mickey (who was attached to a pole at the top of the float) managed to turn her body sideways, look down at the girls and point towards Main Street. That was all it took. The girls were excited now. They had forgotten about death. They were lost in a magical world and I couldn't believe I was watching it unfold in front of my eyes. We followed that float all the way back to City Hall, singing "Mickey Mania" the whole way. Back then, City Hall used to have a VIP lounge behind the desk that was for privacy during difficult situations or to host celebrities. I took them in and showed them the book where all of the autographs were. They were eating it up.

The girl who was Mickey that day (K.T., I will always love you for this) got down off her float and without even taking her head off walked up to me backstage and said "Let's go." I walked in with Mickey behind me so I got to see the exact moment the girls met their new friend. They got shy but Mikey was in control now. Those girls met the REAL Mickey Mouse that day. Every single parade character stayed dressed to meet those girls. One by one they'd come in and play a bit then leave. We were in that lounge for over an hour. Mickey stayed in costume the entire time (which is hard to do after a parade). When Mickey finally said goodbye I had two excited girls on my hands that couldn't stop smiling. They talked and talked and talked. We had a wonderful day after that but what I remember most is when we walked by the rose garden, the older one said "Oh, my mommy loves roses! I mean..." and she stopped. I held out my hand and walked her to the gate, picked her up and put her on the other side and said "Pick one!" She looked happy as she picked out her favorite rose. She didn't say anything more and she didn't need to. I said goodbye to the wonderful nurses and the wonderful girls then walked backstage behind the train station. This time I didn't cry. It felt so good to be a part of that. I realized that as much as I liked helping guests at City Hall, the true magic of Disney was in the character department. I auditioned, transferred and never looked back. Thanks for letting me relive this. It was a special day for me.

A:

You’ll be pleased to know that our staff began the tradition of burying the HeroRATs that passed away in the early days. Our staff in different countries have different cultures and they each honour the animals that have passed in their own way. In Tanzania our staff will often sing a song or two whilst in Cambodia our staff they hand build wooden grave markers and take a moment of silence.


Q:

Have you taken a dose of your own medicine?

A:

Do you prefer parents playing it straight or interacting with you "in character" so to speak?


Q:

Hello Dr. Fast, thank you for doing this AMA.

I've recently been reading more into APOPO and find it really interesting. I was wondering if you could explain more about the process of training the rats for detect mines and TB. I also have a few other questions.

  1. How do African giant-pouched rats compare to the type of rat that can be bought in a pet store, as far as training and intelligence go?

  2. Was any research done using different types of animals for detecting TB and mines? How did APOPO come to using African giant-pouched rats specifically?

  3. What other experiences have led you to working in this field?

  4. How much time do the rats spend out looking for mines or in the lab detecting TB?

  5. How accurate are the rats in detecting mines and TB?

Thanks again!

A:

I can't answer personal questions, but I can say that we are inspired to do this work because we believe there is unexplored potential in these substances and there is a chance to improve the lives of millions of people who are suffering from conditions that are not currently being treated adequately.


Q:

For the most part I appreciated when parents would stay in character. I hated when people would tell their kids "It's just a guy in a suit, don't be scared", which scares the kids even more. What I didn't like was when they would drill me with trivia questions and make me act out the answers. That used to be fun in the old days but toward the end we had to see as many guests as possible and there was always pressure from management to go faster and faster.

A:

Thanks for your questions!

How do African giant-pouched rats compare to the type of rat that can be bought in a pet store, as far as training and intelligence go?

We follow standard learning & behavior procedures to train our rats, much like you might experience when training a dog. We start with clicker training where the rat learns that a click sound leads to a food reward by repeatedly pairing these two events. After that, we then shape the rats behavior by rewarding successive approximations towards the target by making the click when the rat does something close to what we really want. Finally, the rat learns that it will only be rewarded for performing that specific behavior (gently scratching for landmines or hovering over a sample for TB) in the presence of the specific odor we want them to detect (explosives or TB).

Was any research done using different types of animals for detecting TB and mines? How did APOPO come to using African giant-pouched rats specifically?

Mine Detection Dogs have been in use for decades but they are quite expensive and sometimes struggle in the hot and dry environments in Africa that APOPO was initially focused on. Our Founder, Bart Weetjens, had a background in breeding rats and during his research discovered an old article detailing how hamsters were successfully trained to detect TNT. From there, it was just a case of finding a suitable rodent in the region. As it happened, no more than two weeks later our Founder spotted a local man walking a Giant African Pouched rat on a leash which told us that these giant rats could be domesticated.

Some other great reasons why we selected rats was because they are easily trainable, cheap to maintain, easy to transport between locations, excellent sense of smell, highly resistant to disease and they are adapted to the environments we work in.

What other experiences have led you to working in this field?

I grew up surrounded by animals and enjoyed every minute around them. After earning my Bachelor's degree in Psychology with a Neuroscience Concentration, I then went to UCLA where I earned my Master's and Ph.D. While at UCLA, I had the great opportunity to work with pigeons and hermit crabs, in addition to rats. From there, I served as post-doctoral associate in a lab examining the neruobiology of smell in rodents. In the end, I think my whole life has actually led up to this particular work!

How much time do the rats spend out looking for mines or in the lab detecting TB?

Our rats spend less than an hour (about 40 minutes) a day in the field or lab to save lives.

How accurate are the rats in detecting mines and TB?

Our tuberculosis detection rats have increased TB detection rates by 40% in the clinics where we work.

Our mine detection rats have been proven to be at least as accurate as the approved internationally approved mine clearance methods. They are significantly quicker too as they only detect explosives and ignore scrap metal contamination which makes traditional demining with a metal detector so slow.

All of our research is peer reviewed and available online here - https://www.apopo.org/en/contact/press/publications


Q:

I wonder if Heffter makes similar claims about a far more dangerous drug, alcohol, or if they're fine with it being in the grocery store. I smell a double standard: forgive my frankness.

A:

Are the stereotypes about people who play different characters true?


Q:

Do the rats enjoy their work?

A:

You're absolutely right that alcohol ruins lives. That's why Heffter is excited to investigate other conditions that might be successfully treated with psilocybin therapy, including Heffter-funded research currently being conducted at NYU to explore the use of psilocybin to treat alcoholism. The pilot study at the University of New Mexico found extraordinary results in this area, and it's part of the reason we think there is tremendous unexplored potential in psilocybin and why we're continuing to fund research.

http://heffter.org/addiction/


Q:

If you're talking about the "face" performers the answer is yes and no. Some of the break rooms are like the high school cafeteria where the "cool" princesses (elsa and anna) sit on one side and make eyes at the "old" characters (snow and poppins). It's really childish. Other face performers think they're on Broadway and demand respect and they hate not getting it. But those are extreme cases of a few bitches. For the most part the face performers are as much a character as any of us. Some of them are the sweetest people I've ever met in my life.

A:

It's hard to speculate about what enjoyment is for a non-human animal, but if I may, I think the answer would be YES! The rats are always eager to work, they greet us and they willingly perform their duties. It is quite a sight to see a young rat in mine detection training "happily" following their trainer through the field after a session, without a harness or any leash! I think if the rats could wag their tales like a dog then they certainly would when they see us and go to work.


Q:

Way to dodge the question. I asked why your group treats a more dangerous drug (alcohol) less seriously than a less dangerous drug (psilocybin).

A:

What is the weirdest request that a visitor ever asked you to do?


Q:

I reside on an island which is being overrun with invasive species. Since you are starting to move the rats into new territories around Asia, I am wondering if you spay/neuter them in case they get loose?

A:

We consider psilocybin a drug to treat alcohol addiction, so we are treating alcohol very seriously as a substance of abuse, and one of the worst ones. That’s why we’re doing so much work to help people with that problem. Our group is a scientific research institute, and we are not studying any benefits of alcohol use.


Q:

A guy once asked me to choke him for a picture (I didn't). That's a hard one because guests routinely do stupid weird things. I think the worst of them is when people bring their newborn infants to the parks and ask us to hold them for a picture. I can't see shit in Goofy let alone other costumes and I'm wearing giant gloves or paws or whatever depending on what character I am. Why would you let me hold your baby? Yeesh!

A:

Great question! Yes, indeed! Our rats are spayed/neutered before they are transported to operational sites outside of Tanzania, although none have ever chose to run away.


Q:

You just advocated psilocybin prohibition via prescription only access for use in a medical setting. Do you similarly advocate alcohol prohibition?

A:

Did you like Walt Disney World when you started this job? Do you still like it? What's your favourite thing at the parks that isn't around any more?


Q:

Appreciated. Please give the rats a hug from me next time you see them. :-)

A:

We understand where you're coming from, but just to be clear Heffter is a scientific research organization and does not advocate for policy changes to regulate psilocybin, alcohol, or any other substances. In fact, as a non-profit scientific research institute, Heffter cannot advocate for changes in laws.

We have not conducted research on the use/abuse of alcohol, so there have been no statements from our researchers about that in any of their publications. But we believe alcohol addiction is a very serious public health problem.

We do not make a policy recommendation on psilocybin, but do caution people about its lack of demonstrated safety outside the medical setting. We have found that the therapeutic setting we use in our research maximizes the safety of the participants and is most conducive to achieving the positive findings discovered in recent studies.

We respect that others look at these issues more broadly and defer to conversations that are happening elsewhere, but for the rest of this AMA I'll stay focused on the science related to psilocybin.


Q:

Loved it then and I love it now. I would have to say the "Hidden Mickey" at the Disney / MGM Studios. The actual park used to make a giant mickey mouse when seen from an airplane. Echo Lake (where Gertie's is) made his right ear and the place where that horrible hat was made up the nose. All of the expansions tore it all to shreds though. :( There are a LOT of attractions I miss terribly though. Horizons was such a peaceful ride (and cool as shit) and Journey into Imagination with the original figment had so many amazing tricks in it. I miss Delta Dream Flight and Mr. Toad's Wild Ride a lot too.

A:

Will do!


Q:

Do you have any thoughts/knowledge about mushrooms/psilocybin helping people with arthritis? I have psoriatic arthritis and I find that they help with my pain and inflammation tremendously even when I take them at low enough doses that I don't feel any psychoactive effects.

A:

Could you speak to people while in costume? Can you do a good goofy voice impersonation?


Q:

How are the rats bred? Do you pair them up with an eye toward any specific characteristics, or randomly? Is the breeding population separate from the working population? Any interesting / cute highlights from rat childhood?

As a rat owner myself I love APOPO and think your work is so awesome and cute :)

A:

There has been some research in animals that shows very low doses of a drug with some activity similar to psiloycbin can reduce inflammatory processes in asthma and atherosclerosis. But no research has been done with arthritis that I know of, and there have been no studies of this effect in humans. So there is just not more to say about this, except that every person is very unique and that it is hard to tell what treatment causes what results outside of a scientific study with statistics on many subjects.


Q:

We are NOT ALLOWED TO EVER TALK IN COSTUME IN FRONT OF GUESTS. EVER. Backstage however, anything goes. I used to love telling dirty jokes to unsuspecting new hires. I do have a good Goofy laugh but it took me years to perfect.

A:

We first introduce the mating pairs to one another in separate cages positioned next to one another. If the two like each other, they will make soft noises and sort of paw at each other through the cage (sort of like they are playing patty-cake). After the rats have shown this behavior, we then release them together in a large cage where they have a clay pot to rest, wooden toys to climb on, and plenty of food to eat. We leave them together for 30 days before removing the male and then closely monitoring the female for signs that she might be pregnant.

Our breeding colony is housed in a quiet building at our main headquarters, separate from the rest of our rats.

I was incredibly fortunate to witness one of our newest HeroRATs being born just last week. For me, that was a particularly special moment.


Q:

Thank you for the response. I really hope that research is done on this one day. I believe it has the potential to help a lot of people like me.

A:

What's the worst child/adult tantrum you've witnessed?


Q:

ROUS's? I don't believe they exist?

A:

Thank you for the question! Heffter also feels psilocybin has the potential to help people.


Q:

I once saw an adult beat the absolute living shit out of a pre-teen boy on set as the Queen of Hearts. We're told never to interact when something like that happens so I had to leave. I've seen tons and tons of guests lose their shit in Guest Relations, particularly when it involved people not getting their way. I wish I had a camera sometimes. I would get so much delicious karma from /r/PublicFreakout

A:

Nice Princess Bride reference! We're big fans of the film, as you'd expect.


Q:

Thanks for this AMA! These new studies look exciting. How many studies are currently in progress now, and where are they being done? How many more studies need to be done before the results are conclusive?

A:

Any good stories of playing Goofy around the time "A Goofy Movie" came out?

Bonus question: Have you ever met Powerline?


Q:

How long does it take to train a rat?

A:

Thanks for your questions! There's a lot of research happening now and more coming soon. Heffter-funded research is currently exploring the use of psilocybin to treat depression in Switzerland and addictions to cocaine (at the University of Alabama Birmingham), alcohol (at NYU), and tobacco (Johns Hopkins).

We’re currently reviewing proposals to study treatments for obsessive-compulsive disorder and demoralization in long-term HIV survivors. Heffter scientists are also conducting basic science research into the neurophysiology of brain activity, consciousness, and behavior associated with psilocybin.

To prove that the results are "conclusive" and to seek FDA approval to make psilocybin available with a doctor's prescription, we'll need to conduct a larger, multi-site Phase 3 trial, likely on the indication for cancer patients with anxiety and depression. Conversations with the FDA have already started, and we hope they'll give approval to start that work in 2017.


Q:

Oh. My. God.

The first time some kid asked me to do the Perfect Cast I had no idea what he was talking about so I faked it. The kid didn't buy it but luckily I had an escort (that's what they called attendants back in the day) tell the kid that I already forgot it (which is bullshit if you watch the movie). They don't prepare you for details like that in training. You're just supposed to figure it out yourself. Never met Powerline unfortunately.

A:

Our rats typically reach accreditation standards within 9 months for TB detection and slightly longer for landmine detection.


Q:

Thanks! How many people participate in a Phase 3 trial? Once such a trial is done re: cancer patients and anxiety/depression, will other Phase 3 trials need to happen before psilocybin can be indicated as treatment for addictions, OCD, and other ailments?

A:

Is it true that someone gets fired if two of the same characters appear in the same area of the park?


Q:

Is there a possibility of training these rats to detect cancers?

A:

We don’t know how many subjects the FDA will require for Phase 3 for this single-treament approach, as it is very novel in psychiatry. So we would not want to speculate on that. Whether other Phase 3 studies will be required is unknown, as this is a very unique drug to go through the FDA approval process.


Q:

It would depend on the situation. I've met my double on set by accident a few times over the years (it happens to the best of us) but it was just that, an accident. The only way someone would get fired (I'm only guessing here) is if they did it on purpose.

A:

Absolutely! We already have initial discussions in the works to determine the feasibility, what types of samples (for example, urine or breath) would be best-suited, and what cancers might be best for our rats to detect. We are aiming towards cancers that currently do not have reliable or cost-effective screening techniques and for which life-saving treatment exists if only the cancer is actually detected.


Q:

Is psilocybin like LSD in that it has the potential to trigger schizophrenic breaks in people predisposed to schizophrenia?

A:

Where do you go in your career from here?


Q:

Have any of the trained animals accidentally set a mine off? Do they get a funeral?

A:

Yes, we believe that is a real possibility in people who are at risk for schizophrenia, based on their personal and family histories. That’s why patients with those warning signs are excluded from being research participants.


Q:

That's how this whole AMA started. I made a comment in /r/adviceanimals in response to someone who was frustrated they were 30 and making a career change. I'm 46 now. I have zero job skills other than making people laugh. I never thought I'd ever do anything else so I'm stuck. Maybe working with troubled teens or some other kind of service work. I just want to find something that gives me as much passion as Disney did, which is hard.

A:

None of our animals have ever been harmed in the line of duty. The beauty of the rats work is that they are actually too light to set off traditional landmines so their well-being is not threatened when they go to work.

Our rats always receive a local funeral. I've answered in more detail above.


Q:

Sigh... no magical anti-depressant remedy for me. Uncle has schizophrenia.

A:

Why did you quit ?


Q:

How long do these trained rats live for?

How much does it cost to train a rat?

Do you grow attached to these rats?

How many rats have died from landmines and do they have a memorial?

Do you get to take the retired ones home and keep them as pets?

What was the most intelligent rat you ever trained?

Where would soldiers keep these rats when out in the field?

A:

Even though Heffter believes psilocybin holds the potential to help people, it is not the only remedy available. It definitely would not be good for someone with schizophrenia.


Q:

I was fired. To make a complicated story short, Donald Duck was, as usual, being a jerk and wouldn't leave my area because I had signed "Luv, Goofy" right over the bill of a Donald Duck hat. He threw a temper tantrum and as I was dragging him across the floor to get him back to his position a little kid ran out from behind the curtain at Pete's Silly Sideshow and we knocked her on her butt. The kid was fine and no one complained but Disney didn't really appreciate me dragging the costume on the carpeted floor so they terminated me.

A:

How long do these trained rats live for?

Around 7-8 years normally.

How much does it cost to train a rat?

Around $7,000 each which sounds expensive but they are significantly cheaper than the alternative solutions.

Do you grow attached to these rats?

Absolutely! Many of us are animal lovers and every one of our staff will have their favourite HeroRAT. They are fun, sociable, and inquisitive creatures meaning it is hard not to develop bonds with them.

How many rats have died from landmines and do they have a memorial?

Not a single rat has ever been hurt by a landmine. They are too light to trigger mines and operate under strict safety conditions.

Do you get to take the retired ones home and keep them as pets?

Our retired rats are kept with all of their other HeroRAT buddies rather than being separated. We don't tend to adopt them as we want to ensure that their years of hard work are thoroughly rewarded with expert care and mountains of great food.

What was the most intelligent rat you ever trained?

Intelligence can be a bit tricky to quantify. Because I've only been with APOPO a few months, I'm afraid I don't have any examples with our Giant African Pouched Rats. For me, it would probably be a lab rat that I worked with at UCLA. At first, she appeared to be learning more slowly than all of the others - until I watched what she was doing during her training session. Turns out she had learned the most clever solution to what I thought should be a chellenging task. After changing a few things in the cage to prevent her from doing her "little tricks" she quickly caught up to the performance of all of the other rats and even beat them to the finish line (meaning she mastered the task before everyone else). She was quite a special rat to work with.

Where would soldiers keep these rats when out in the field?

APOPO is focused on humanitarian demining in post-conflict areas and as such we employ local civilian staff to clear mines. Typically we will establish a small office and base for the HeroRATs near to where we are clearing mines.


Q:

After 20 years, you were fired over that? Was it a full on fight lol?

A:

How did you get involved in this field of work?


Q:

That's a long and painful story. Disney still has no idea the pain and trauma that caused. There were other reasons I think I was not brought back, one of them being terrible legal advise from a lawyer I sought out before my final arbitration. I was also sort of a whistle-blower and I think that played a big role.

A:

Thanks for asking the first question!

I have always loved animals and enjoyed learning more about them. While working on my bachelor's degree, I had a really outstanding professor invite me to join his lab where he was looking at how rats solve various problems to gain a greater understanding about the process of learning. After joining his lab, I never looked back!


Q:

Hey there worst and best customer experience you ever had?

A:

Are there any major differences between giant pouched rats and ordinary domestic rats, behavior-wise?


Q:

Ugh. Worst guest experience? It's a tie between having my life threatened at a Grad Night party one time and one time I had to tell a guest that their son was in jail for stealing from one of the stores and she did not take it very well. Best guest experience? I've got too many to mention. One that stands out is when I was working at Mickey's Character Spot at Epcot. There was an older gentleman that came up in the queue but didn't come see me, he just sort of stood in the back and watched me for a while. After about 20 minutes he came up to me and said "Goofy, I had a special friend that would want you to have this." In Goofy you have to look down in order to make it look like Goofy is looking at you so I couldn't see him but I heard him holding back the tears. He was shaking a bit but he gave me a hug anyway. I will never forget that hug. It was one of those hugs that last with you. He was crying in my arms. He had given me this which is a pin they give to family members or friends of POWs and MIAs. It's become one of my most prized possessions.

A:

I've only noticed very slight differences in behavior. Our African Giant Pouched Rats tend to be a bit more social with their human counterparts. That's not to say that domestic or typical lab rats aren't social towards humans by any means. Maybe it's more patience; the giant rats tend to be more relaxed and calculated in their motions. Perhaps it is driven by the underlying differences in life expectancy with domestic rats only living 3-5 years and giant rats living 8 or more years. Of course, there's the major difference of hoarding scrumptious food in their pouched cheeks (where they get their names) which domestic rats don't have the opportunity to try!


Q:

my life threatened at a Grad Night party one time

This is reddit, you can't just leave it at that. we need details.

A:

This may sound dumb. BUT are the rats you work with smarter than the average rat? Bigger so I'm assuming bigger brains? If so wouldn't that make them highly intelligent?


Q:

My job that night was to check receipts at the door of the Emporium to make sure kids weren't stealing shit. One kid was walking out with a hat (he was a BIG kid) and when I grabbed it off his head he pushed me up against the wall and said "Touch me again and I'll fucking gut you". I just smiled and said "Be safe tonight".

A:

Good question! Yes, our rats are definitely larger than typically rats and also have larger brains. As a neuroscientist, I can tell you that a larger brain doesn't necessarily translate to greater intelligence. Intelligence is vey difficult to define, especially among non-verbal, non-human species. From what I've witnessed, our rats are very similar in learning abilities to other typical rat species. The biggest difference is their lifespan, which means that they have more time to learn more things over the course of their lives.


Q:

what were your coworkers like? is everyone filled with the disney spirit, or do people hate their jobs there like any other job?

A:

I'm a big fan of APOPO so thanks for doing this AMA. My question is what is next for APOPO? Are you going to train the rats to detect new things?


Q:

It's really like any other job. I went through phases myself. At first, every time I farted Pixie Dust ® would blow out of my butt but after several years I got kind of bitter. It was all management stuff though. On set I was fine and loved it but backstage stress got to me for a while and I was big on holding Disney accountable. After about 10 years though I calmed down. I loved every single minute while on set (for the most part) and some of my co-workers will be friends for life. You get out of it what you put into it.

A:

Absolutely! We have a very active and growing Research & Development department that is constantly exploring new avenues for our rats to use their amazing sense of smell in solving pressing global humanitarian problems. We have recently started a collaboration with the Endangered Wildlife Trust on a project that is funded by the US Fish and Wildlife Services to train our rats to detect wildlife and hardwoods illegally smuggled out of Africa in shipping containers. We are also exploring possibilities for the rats to detect food-bourne illnesses (such as salmonella), diseases in animals (for example brucella infection or bovine TB) and other human diseases (various cancers and even Alzheimer's). There's A LOT of potential for our sniffer rats to put their noses to good use!


Q:

Do you smile in the costume when you're taking photos with other people?

A:

What are the rats landmine detection percentage? If one rat cleared a field would you feel comfortable walking through it yourself? Do you overlap their clearance tracks for a kind of "two rat integrity?"


Q:

Almost every time.

A:

What are the rats landmine detection percentage?

All of our mine detection rats are required to pass blind tests at a 100% clip to become approved for detection purposes. There is no cutting corners when dealing with a life and death situation like landmines and if a rat cannot consistently pass the tests then they are not used in the field.

If one rat cleared a field would you feel comfortable walking through it yourself?

Absolutely. We return the land to local communities to farm, build houses, and to develop their communities, and we have no concerns whatsoever walking over minefields cleared by the HeroRATs. In over a decade of mine clearance, covering 26,000,000 m2, there has not been a single mine or device found in any minefield that APOPO's rats have cleared.


Q:

What is the weirdest story of one of your coworkers getting fired? What did they get fired for?

A:

So what does rat do when it finds a mine under sand or something? How can you tell it has found something?


Q:

Well, the worst I personally saw was in the 90's when Fantasyland Character Festival was still around which was the old queue for 20K Leagues Under the Sea. One of our greeters (that's what they called them then, they're attendants now) was a trans woman (that wasn't fooling anyone) and the police came and picked her up backstage. Evidently she was the father of a missing child and she was hiding out at Disney. Fucked up huh? There was also the infamous Michael Chartrand case who was the Tigger that felt up one of the guests. That was a really embarrassing blemish for Disney. It was on the front page of the Orlando Sentinel which is plopped down on everyone's doorstep at Disney (in the premium resorts anyway). He got his job back (there was a totally bizarre court case. His lawyer actually dressed up as Tigger to give the closing arguments) but he was fired a few years later for allegedly doing the same thing to one of the photographers.

A:

We originally trained our rats to pause for a few seconds above the mine but if you’ve ever handled a rat you’ll know they don’t enjoy staying still! We now train them to lightly scratch above the surface of the earth. You can watch a video of exactly how it works here - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UE94Sxp6mY8


Q:

What is the funniest thing you've ever seen someone dressed as their character say (Like someone in costume saying something that sounds ridiculous cause they said it in character)?

A:

Does each rat have its name? How can you tell them apart?


Q:

"I just farted" - Cinderella

A:

Every single rat has a name with most of them being named by our local trainers at our HQ in Tanzania. We have a few soccer players (Ramsey, Ozil, Drogba, Adebayor, Lukaku, Kompany, Mourinho, Wenger etc), some Star Wars rats (Skywalker, Han Solo, and Princess Leia), and some celebrities too (Jon Stewart, Taylor Swift, Malala).

Our rats either have their own home environment or share cage with another rat which are labelled. Each of the rats have their own unique markings, behaviours, and relationships with our staff and we don't normally have any problem telling them apart.


Q:

What is your favorite memory working there?

A:

Oh man- can you post a photo of Jon Stewart the rat? Mr. Stewart (the human) is a huge animal lover and would probably love to hear he has a HeroRat named after him!


Q:

(sigh) I can't really figure that out. I've tried to answer that question a hundred times but I can never pinpoint a specific moment that stands out from the rest. I have a few tear jerkers, a few laugh out loud moments, and a few horror stories. One that does stand out was at Give Kids The World which is where all the Make-a-Wish kids stay when they come to Disney (truly a magical spectacular place). A woman came up with her son who was born with a birth defect that meant he had no muscles in his neck. He looked REALLY bad and his head had to be supported by his mom. This was a special circumstance. The kid's wish was to be held by Goofy. That's it. Just to be held. The mother told me that because of his "life problems" everyone is afraid to even touch him. She laid him very carefully in my arms (sitting on the ground) and let go. We rocked back and forth on that floor for what seemed forever. It was one of the times where I forgot I had the costume on and I just cried and cried. He was such a special kid. I'll never forget that.

A:

We'll report back with a picture as soon as we can!


Q:

What was the pay like? Must not have been too bad!

A:

Land mines and TB seem like two very different things to detect. Are these separate training processes or is one somehow a side-effect of the other? If it's the same, how did that come to be discovered? If it's separate, what lead you to choose those two topics for detection?


Q:

Well, I had 25 years of seniority but only made about 15 bucks an hour. Because Florida is a right-to-work state the Union is pretty much impotent there. It's not like California, they get paid WAY more.

A:

Land mines and TB seem like two very different things to detect. Are these separate training processes or is one somehow a side-effect of the other? If it's the same, how did that come to be discovered? If it's separate, what lead you to choose those two topics for detection?

The process is a little bit different but shares the same principles of positive reinforcement. Our infographics explain the differences well:

https://www.apopo.org/en/mine-action/how/training https://www.apopo.org/en/tuberculosis-detection/how/training

We started out detecting landmines and later developed our tuberculosis detection rats. Tuberculosis is the deadliest infectious disease in the world killing more people every year than HIV / AIDS. It was expensive to treat and it was a growing problem in Africa that desperately needed a innovative solution. As humans we tend to rely on our eyes to identify medical problems whether that is looking for a rash or using a microscope. Rats however, use their sense of smell to understand the world and they are able to sniff out diseases in a fast, reliable, and accurate way, that just isn’t possible using conventional technologies.

We think there is great potential for future health applications for the HeroRATs and other scent detection animals.


Q:

Is that dog in the picture a good boy?

A:

Then it's a win/win for everyone :)


Q:

That's my dog Max (named after Goofy's son). He's a very good boy. :)

A:

We try our best to treat our rats like the heroes we believe they are.


Q:

What is your favorite Disney movie?

A:

Aside from the trained rats, how are they viewed around Tanzania and elsewhere? Are they seen as pests the way they're viewed in cities in the West?


Q:

Tough call. I'm really partial to the Little Mermaid because of Ursula but I think all in all it has to be Ratatouille. That movie has some of my all time favorite quotes, especially Anton Ego's (sp?) speech at the end of the film. I also loved Dumbo (as racist as it was) but that's because Timothy Q Mouse is probably my favorite character of all.

A:

In general, I think Tanzanians also view the wild rat counterparts of our rats as pests. Interestingly, though, many local Tanzanians I've spoke with are very aware of the work our HeroRATs are doing and think it's amazing that the rats can do work that they themselves can't (have you ever tried to sniff out a landmine? LOL). Many of our rat trainers throughout the world shared this initial response, but once they started working with them, they realized just how delightful they are to be around. Each rat has its own personality and character and I think that makes them especially endearing to the people around them. Fortunately, our HeroRATs can serve as ambassadors for rats everywhere!


Q:

If Goofy and Pluto are both dogs then how come Pluto has to live in a dog house while Goofy plays golf with Mickey?

A:

What does an average day look like for you?


Q:

Goofy is better at golf.

A:

I start the day at the landmine training field at 6:30am. We train the rats there until around 9am so the rats don't have to work in the excessive heat or sun of Sub-Saharan Africa. From there, I stop by our TB lab to check in on operations and oversee training of our young rats that have just joined the team. After lunch, I return to our main office where I monitor progress on our ongoing lines of research. Spattered throughout is answering emails, writing grant proposals to fund our work, and other general manager-type duties. One highlight for me is the time I spend in our breeding colony checking on our new arrivals.


Q:

What, exactly, is goofy?

A:

It's interesting to hear what is possible with these HeroRat's. In particular peoples relationships with these animals seems to be one of the more noticed aspects of these animals. Do you notice any of the rats more or less willing to perform as task for different people?


Q:

He's an anthropomorphic dog. Yes, we get that question a lot.

A:

Thanks for your question! Our rats are highly sociable animals who enjoy spending time with their human colleagues but they don’t form close bonds with specific individuals. They tend to love all their human buddies equally.

This is actually a major advantage as it means we can relocate our rats to where they’re needed without having to supply a specific trainer as well.


Q:

Ever bang someone in the costume?

A:

Could you (would you) make it possible for rat training to be an at-home activity for regular people with some time to spare?

I'm retiring soon and this seems like a rewarding retirement hobby. Ordinary people train dogs for the blind in heir homes. I'd like to train rats to detect TB.

I took a couple behavior mod classes in college. The rats are readily available. I would need neutered TB samples, videos or written instruction on how to do the rat training -- and a way to find out where the trained rats are needed. Perhaps trained rats would go to a central clearing house so the quality of their training could be confirmed -- and the clearing house would distribute them?


Q:

No, and contrary to popular belief there aren't many furries in the character department. I know there are a few (I knew one of them) but it's not something that's out in the open for sure.

A:

Thanks for your generous offer of support! I see a few challenges with your proposal but that's not to say they couldn't be overcome. We currently breed and train all of our rats at our HQ in Tanzania and it can be difficult to source African Pouched Rats in many countries.

If you have a genuine interest in pursuing this we have an open call for applications for new projects on our website.

https://www.apopo.org/en/contact/stay-in-touch/careers


Q:

In what ways have the parks changed during the 25 years you've worked there? Have you ever broken character while working as Goofy?

A:

How does the rat learn to tell the difference between a mine and, say, a mine-shaped rock?


Q:

The parks have grown since I started (actually, there were only three when I started) but the real change has been in the management. They lost something when Michael Eisner took over. For example, the park used to close at 6PM on Christmas eve so that the cast could be with their families. They used to close the park and have Christmas parties just for us. We were allowed to ride the rides in our costumes and do things we wouldn't normally do for the day guests. They don't do that anymore. They're open until 2AM and open up early the next day. There's an atmosphere that's just gone now. The new management (I mean after 9/11 specifically) is very concerned about the bottom line (read: money). That's not just me being bitter, that's shown in everything they do. For example, there are very few (and I mean a handful) character managers that were actually characters. That used to be unheard of. As far as breaking character, only a few times when the circumstances warranted it. They were far in between. :)

A:

Good question! Our rats are nocturnal which means they spend most of their time in the dark. As a result, they don't have very good eyesight and rely more heavily on their sense of smell. They use this incredible olfactory abilities to sniff out the landmines, rather than looking for them. This means they really don't have much trouble telling the difference between an explosive device and say a rock. This is especially helpful because most landmines are buried below the earth's surface where they can't be seen.


Q:

Are the Disney Corporation really as cold-heartedly capitalist as the adult me has been lead to believe?

A:

I was reading above that these giant rats live for around 8 years. Are these rats retired at a certain age? Are there any giant rat adoption policies in place, or do they end up with a handler after their years of service?


Q:

Yes and no. Disney has lost their focus and the old Disney Cast Members that held those old company values have all retired but Disney is a great company to work for regardless. I can give you an example of how corporate Disney has taken over what I like to call Traditional Disney. The place where all of the characters used to break was called the Zoo. Everyone knew the characters as The Zoo Crew. If you wanted a character you either called the head room or the Zoo. It was a Disney tradition and everyone got a kick out of it. Then this guy named David (who was the Entertainment Vice President) came in and didn't think that sounded too professional so he changed the name to the Base. Eventually all the Zoo signs came down and were replaced. The Zoo disappeared and it got sterile really quick. We used to have nice big couches to relax on and David had them all thrown out and replaced by metal chairs. A part of the character department died that day. Anyway, they're way too concerned with "numbers" now. We used to just stroll the parks and play with people but in the end we were all held accountable to see as many guests as we possibly could during our sets. They HOUND you to go faster and faster. They figure 23 seconds (a number I pulled out of my butt mind you but I know it's under 30) is plenty of time to see a family of 4. I turned into an autograph machine towards the end but I always stayed true to my character. A lot of performers don't do that anymore. It's sad.

A:

We allow our rats to determine their own retirement timeline. They are normally enthusiastic and keen to start work when we arrive in the morning but when that is no longer apparent they are allowed to peacefully retire to a life of delicious food, play time with their rat buddies, regular health checks, and they are free from being woken up in the morning for work!

We don't tend to let others adopt the HeroRATs simply because we want to ensure they are treated like the heroes they are and receive the expert care they need.


Q:

What is the worst thing that you ever saw happen to a guest at Disney?

A:

Do the trained rats interact with each other? Is it different from two pet rats interacting? Do they both know they're trained?


Q:

Wow, I have so many... I've answered some of this in the comments above but one thing that stands out was an emergency park dump one Forth of July in '95. There was a weird power glitch and all of the attractions went down at the same time and had to be evacuated. When they do the Fire Code estimates of how many people can be in the park at one time it is assumed that people will be in the rides. The Fourth of July is one of the park's busiest days of the year. Everyone dumped into the common areas of the park and it became dangerously crowded. One guest freaked out and pulled out something sharp and started stabbing guests to get out. I had to bring a stabbed guest back to her hotel to get her ID so she could go to the hospital. I'd never been so thankful to get off the desk in City Hall. That was a nightmare.

A:

Yes, our rats get to interact with one another, especially during their free-time in the play pen, but even in their home cages they can see, hear, and smell one another. Not much different from pet rats. You can clearly see which rats seem to have an affinity for one another, which ones just tolerate each other, and which ones would rather not have to "talk" (we try to move these ones apart as soon as we identify this behavior). I'm not sure how you would be able to determine if they somehow knew that they were both trained to perform a task. I don't really notice any hints of this, whatever it might be.


Q:

Where is your camp located in Tanzania? Is it possible to visit it for a day or something, to learn about the project? I am currently volunteering in Tanzania and it sounds very interesting, thats why I ask :)

A:

Our HQ is on the campus of the Sokoine University of Agriculture in Morogoro. It's a beautiful part of the country.

We should be able to accommodate a visit but we recommend you email us first to ensure someone is there to show you around.


Q:

This is really cool work, but, because I can't resist a pun, and despite the fact that you are probablydefinitely way smarter than me, when was the last time someone told you to think fast?

A:

I actually love these Fast puns (which are probably as frequent as you can imagine) because Fast is my married name! Far more fun and exciting than Cardwell (my maiden name), though I doubt I would feel that way if I grew up with the puns.


Q:

Is APOPO training or working with any other animals?

A:

Not at this time, though part of our most recent project involves training our rats to detect illegally poached and smuggled animals. Quite frankly, we just haven't found anything that our rats can't do!


Q:

Hello Dr. Fast, I haven't had a chance to read all the post so maybe you've already answered this but, how many rats are in your program? 8-)

A:

We have around 250 giant rats in various stages of breeding, training, operations, retirement, and research.


Q:

What do the rats get as a reward for finding a land mine?

What do you feed them?

Do you breed them?

A:

Our rats get banana, peanuts or a peanut-paste for reward when they have correctly identified a known landmine or TB+ sample. Aside from these rewards, they are fed a variety of fresh, locally available fruits and veggies including avacados, watermelon, corn, tomatoes, etc., and even small dried fish the size of sardines.

All of our rats are bred at our main headquarters in Tanzania.


Q:

How do you train and reward the rats to do this kind of work?

A:

I hope you don't mind a bit of cut and paste from a similar question above. If you have any follow ups I'd be happy to answer them.

We follow standard learning & behavior procedures to train our rats, much like you might experience when training a dog. We start with clicker training where the rat learns that a click sound leads to a food reward by repeatedly pairing these two events. After that, we then shape the rats behavior by rewarding successive approximations towards the target by making the click when the rat does something close to what we really want. Finally, the rat learns that it will only be rewarded for performing that specific behavior (gently scratching for landmines or hovering over a sample for TB) in the presence of the specific odor we want them to detect (explosives or TB).


Q:

Have you had any particular favorite rats that stand out in your memory? Or rat-and-handler teams?

A:

I've only been with the team for a little under 2 months now, so not much time to develop favorites. As I previously mentioned, Nala was the very first rat I met when I arrived so she's special to me.


Q:

I'm going to be honest here and say these rats terrify me. How do they get so big?

A:

So sorry to hear this, I'm reasonably sure that if you met one in-person your fears would diminish! Our rats are an entirely different species (cricetomys ansorgei) than the common rat (rattus). This makes it sort of like asking how did the kangaroo get so big compared to the opossum. Our rats are still rather small in perspective to other mammals, for example, they're smaller than most cats.