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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Innovative Project Trains Rats to Find Land Mines

BOGOTA, Colombia -- Who says Tom and Jerry can't be friends?

For the past year, a special Colombian police unit has been locking rats in cages with cats as part of a project to train the rodents to sniff out the more than 100,000 land mines planted mostly by leftist rebels across this conflict-wracked Andean country.

Bringing the rats face to face with an enemy allows them to stay more focused once they are released, veterinarian Luisa Mendez, who's been working with the animals for two years, said Tuesday.

"Here the cats play with the rats instead of attacking them," Mendez said. "The cats wear shields on their nails so they can't cause any injuries, and as a result, the rats feel comfortable playing around them."

The rodents are taught to freeze in front of mines, but had difficulty staying put for fear of being attacked by predators.

Colonel Javier Cifuentes, who oversees the project, said the rats' success rate in mine detection was 96 percent. Unlike dogs, the rats weigh a lot less and therefore do not trigger explosions.

Colombia is home to the world's largest number of land mine victims. Last year, there were 1,108 victims, or about one every eight hours, the government says. Nearly one quarter of the victims die from their injuries.

The nation's rat project was recognized last month as one of the five most innovative projects at a conference of behavior psychologists in Mexico, and its initial findings will soon be presented at a similar conference in Argentina.