Between 1999 and 2001, about eight giant Gambian pouched rats were let loose by a local exotic breeder. More than a decade later, despite multiple attempts to eradicate what Zoo Miami Communications Director Ron Magill calls "the largest true rat in the world," the mutant critters just won't go away.
KeysNet.com reported this week that the Florida Wildlife Commission (FWC) had put up fliers on homes in the Grassy Key area alerting residents to be aware of the rodents, which usually weigh three to four pounds and run up to 30 (thirty!) inches in length.
After eradication efforts several years ago, the FWC believed the huge rats to be gone from South Florida as of 2010, spokeswoman Carli Segelson told New Times. But then cameras captured them reappearing in 2011.
"At that time, FWC biologists began taking periodic trips to the site for two- to three-day trapping events. Since 2011, the FWC has removed a handful of Gambian pouched rats, though more continue to show up on pictures from the baited cameras. The Gambian pouched rat population is currently very small, but trapping must be ongoing to prevent the population from growing. The goal of continued efforts is to eradicate this species."
According to Magill, though, the whole they must die sound stems from the giant rats being a danger to our plants, not to us.
"It's not a dangerous animal necessarily to humans. The problem with these rats is first of all, they love to dig burrows," he said. "They go into tunnels quite a bit. In Grassy Key, there's a lot of inaccessible areas, so you have an animal that has a way to hide because it goes into these burrows all the time, you have an animal that reproduces at a ridiculously high rate, so every time you think you're catching up, they're also catching up. They thought they had these things eradicated but, man, it only takes one that's pregnant in the wild. I don't know if they'll be able to totally eradicate them, but the most important thing is preventing them from getting on the mainland."
The rats also have a link to monkeypox, Magill said. In 2003, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported a small number of cases throughout the United States of monkeybox that could have resulted from prairie dogs interacting with humans after they'd come in contact with the Gambian rats.
Still, despite the jarring rodent's tendency to wreck ass on Mother Nature and maaaaaaybe give you monkeypox, in 2003, a pair of Belgians started an organization called APOPO that revolved around teaching and training giant rats, like the African Gambian. To detect bleeping land mines and tuberculosis. No typo. They're called HeroRATS and APOPO trains them in their native Africa over nine months, hooking them up to ropes in simulated mine fields where they cover 200 to 400 square meters a day, sniffing for bombs, scratching when found. Seriously, check it out:
It's the kind of research Magill agrees should be done -- one he sees as valuable -- but one that isn't a solution to eradicate the animal when they're running uncontrolled through South Florida, where they're not from.
"These rats are not uncommon at all in Africa," he says. "It's easy to acquire them, start breeding colonies under a controlled situation, and if they can be trained to help human beings, let's go for it. But in the meantime, we cannot wait to get these animals doing damage to the economy out of the wild."
It's a problem particularly for South Florida, Magill says. Colder places like New York where similar rats have been found tend not to be a good place for the African animal because the heat (AKA the Heat, amirite?!) is needed.
"People have no concept about how many exotic animals and insects and plants we're fighting every single day," he says. "We're talking in the billions of dollars to try to control these impacts on wildlife, so it's a huge challenge. Something like the rat makes the news, why? Because it's a big, ugly, huge rat and people pay attention to that. Oh my God! Oh my God! People just need to put meaning on what a nonnative species can do, whether it's a tiny little insect or a giant python."
Imagine a four-pound, 30-inch-long insect.
Ron Magill has a segment answering animal questions every Tuesday at 5 p.m. on the Dan Le Batard Show with Stugoz on ESPN Radio (also on 104.3 FM and 790 AM).
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