But all the giant Gambian pouched rats in the U.S. were dodging wildlife law enforcement on Grassy Key
GRASSY KEY, Florida––Giant Gambian pouched rats, deployed in Nashville at the right hour of Christmas morning, might have prevented the 6:30 a.m. explosion of a bomb inside a recreational vehicle that damaged at least 43 businesses, may have killed one person, and at this hour still has law enforcement stumped as to the motive of the as yet unknown bomber.
Meanwhile in Florida, five federal and state wildlife agencies have again put out hit contracts on Gambian giant pouched rats, arguably the most uniquely helpful and likable alleged alien invader ever to be declared Public Enemy #1, even within a habitat as limited as the Florida Keys.
Released by breeder living in small house?
According to the all-points bulletin issued on November 2, 2020 to wildlife law enforcement agencies and would-be bounty hunters, “Cricetomys gambianus, which are native to a large area of central and southern Africa, accidentally became established in the Florida Keys in 1999 following an escape or release by a pet breeder.”
Elaborated Reuters correspondent Laura Myers in 2007, “A former exotic pet breeder, living in a small house, bred the species and allowed the critters to escape.”
The origin of this story is unclear, since the Florida exotic pet dealer best known for selling giant Gambian pouched rats is still in business, in Miami.
“If this invasive species reaches the U.S. mainland,” the November 2, 2020 bulletin warned, “there could be extensive damage to the Florida fruit industry. This species also poses a risk of monkeypox and other diseases.”
Giant Gambian pouched rats might take over the joint
Further, said the bulletin, “A climate/habitat modeling exercise suggested that their new range in North America could expand dramatically,” assuming, of course, that Gambian pouched rats can make their way up the Florida peninsula through a gantlet of alligators, pythons, bobcats, coyotes, Florida panthers, cars, and hunters inclined to shoot anything that looks vaguely like a legal target.
Hell-bent on killing Gambian giant pouched rats, if the rats can be found, are USDA Wildlife Services, the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the South Florida Water Management District, and the Florida Park Service.
Acknowledged the all-points bulletin, “Currently, the only known free-ranging population of Gambian giant pouched rats [known to be in the U.S.] occurs on Grassy Key in the Florida Keys,” where they are said to “pose a threat to the endangered Key Largo wood rat and other species of plants and animals.”
Monkeypox & Ebola-Marburg
The only actual harm, though, that giant Gambian pouched rats ever allegedly did to anyone or any species was purportedly bringing monkeypox into the U.S. in 2003, and even that allegation appears to be a bad rap, in which the giant Gambian pouched rats were erroneously fingered as the source of a disease actually imported by Ghanian dormice and spread by prairie dogs sold into the exotic pet trade.
Giant Gambian pouched rats, to be sure, have also been blamed for interfering with experimental attempts to orally vaccinate endangered gorillas and chimpanzees against the deadly Ebola-Marburg virus in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, using edible baits.
“There are Gambian pouched rats all over the forest, and the minute you put anything out, they eat it,” complained University of Cambridge disease ecologist Peter Walsh in March 2017 to German science journalist Kai Kupferschmidt.
Observed EcoHealth Alliance executive vice president for health and policy William Karesh, “Developing a vaccine is the easy part. The hard part is designing a successful vaccination campaign.”
Wrote Ryan Cortes of the South Florida New Times on June 3, 2014, when the same cohort of government agencies made another of many previous efforts to inflame animosity toward Gambian giant pouched rats, “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.”
Note: giant Gambian pouched rats are not “mutants.” They do, however, typically weigh three to four pounds and, tail included, can grow to 30 inches in length.
The Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission imagined in 2009 that a four-year intensive poisoning campaign had eradicated giant Gambian pouched rats entirely from Grassy Key.
The campaign had, to be sure, been doubled in length, after giant Gambian pouched rats proved to be unusually difficult to fool into taking poisoned baits.
“They love to dig”
Nonetheless, after seeing no giant Gambian pouched rats for a year, the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission declared victory over the rats in 2010.
But wildlife surveillance cameras confirmed in 2011 that giant Gambian pouched rats had survived the onslaught. Ensuing experience suggests that giant Gambian pouched rats might also have become even warier than they were before.
“The Gambian pouched rat population is currently very small, but trapping must be ongoing,” Cortes claimed, echoing officialdom, “to prevent the population from growing.”
Acknowledged Magill, to Cortes, the giant Gambian pouched rat is “not a dangerous animal necessarily to humans. The problem with these rats is, first of all, they love to dig burrows. They go into tunnels quite a bit. On Grassy Key, there are a lot of inaccessible areas, so you have an animal who has a way to hide and 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 who’s pregnant in the wild.
Unlikely to survive cold winters
“The most important thing,” Magill said, reiterating conventional Floridian belief, “is preventing them from getting on the mainland.”
Where they might do what?
Hitchhike to Miami aboard a truck and compete for habitat with burrowing Norway rats, whose reproduction rate is even higher and who are much less conspicuous to wild predators?
Favoring equatorial climates with no winter freezes, giant Gambian pouched rats are unlikely to survive and thrive as far north as Georgia, never mind above the snowbelt.
Meanwhile, many more giant Gambian pouched rats may be working for a living, helping to save human lives, than the entire isolated giant Gambian pouched rat population on Grassy Key, none of whom appear to have ventured to the Florida mainland even to have a quick sniff around.
“Walking in a minefield in Angola”
Wrote New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof on April 18, 2015, “I’m walking in a minefield here in rural Angola, tailing a monster rat. This rat is a genius as well as a giant, for he has learned how to detect land mines by scent — and he is doing his best to save humans like me from blowing up.
“I’m here,” Kristof explained, “because five years ago, my kids gave me a HeroRat,” as the mine-detecting giant Gambian pouched rats are called, “for a Father’s Day present. I didn’t actually take physical possession, but the gift helped pay to train the rat to sniff out explosives.
“There are 39 HeroRats here,” Kristof said. “I’ve seen land-mine detection in Afghanistan and elsewhere, and it’s dreadfully slow and inefficient. Typically, men in body armor walk in precise rows holding metal detectors in front of them. Whenever they come across metal, they stop and painstakingly brush away the soil until they see what it is. Usually it’s an empty AK-47 cartridge or a nail. Sometimes there is metal every few inches. Each time, the whole process stops until the soil can be brushed away.
“Scrap metal doesn’t slow them down”
“In contrast, the rats scamper along on leashes. They respond only to the scent of explosives, so scrap metal doesn’t slow them down.
“At this minefield,” Kristoff said, “which is full of metal objects, a human with a metal detector can clear only about 20 square meters a day. A rat can clear 20 times as much.
“The rats are paid in bananas, peanuts, avocados and apples, and they don’t need body armor — partly because they’re too light to set off land mines.”
The HeroRat program is sponsored by an organization called APOPO, begun by Belgian philanthropist Bart Weetjens.
Weetjens initially hoped gerbils might be trained to detect mines, but giant Gambian pouched rats proved to be better suited to the job, in part, Kristof explained, “because they compensate for very weak eyes with a superb sense of smell. They are called ‘pouched’ not because they are marsupials but because they fill their cheeks with nuts and other goodies, and then bury them underground — relying upon scent to recover their caches later.”
“Another advantage of giant Gambian pouched rats,” Kristof mentioned, “is that they have an eight-year life span that offers a lengthy return on the nine months of training needed to detect land mines.”
Training giant Gambian pouched rats in Tanzania, APOPO “pampers the rats, who get better health care than most Angolans. The rats work only a couple of hours a day,” since they become overheated if worked in mid-day, “and they retire at age six when they become less dependable.
“HeroRats spend their golden years nibbling on avocados and hanging out with their handlers,” Kristof finished. “When the time comes, the handlers lay them to rest in a rodent cemetery, with several people present to pay respects.”
Reuters correspondent Prak Chan Thul confirmed Kristof’s report three months later after observing 12 APOPO handlers and 15 giant Gambian pouched rats at work clearing minefields in Cambodia.
Giant Gambian pouched rats also detect tuberculosis
“Their work could prove vital in a country where unexploded devices, including mines and unexploded shells, have killed nearly 20,000 Cambodians and wounded about 44,000 since 1979, according to the Cambodian government,” Prak Chan Thul wrote.
APOPO now also uses giant Gambian pouched rates to detect tuberculosis from sputum samples “delivered from partner clinics in Tanzania, Mozambique and Ethiopia,” according to the APOPO web site. “Any rat-suspect samples are rechecked using World Health Organization-endorsed methods, “and if tuberculosis is confirmed, APOPO notifies the clinic.”
APOPO credits giant Gambian pouched rats with “improving clinic detection rates” of a disease that kills 1.5 million people per year in the developing world “by up to 40%.”
Can they sniff out pangolin scales?
Even the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is reportedly impressed.
Wrote TakePart environment and wildlife associate editor Taylor Hill in October 2016, “The Fish & Wildlife Service wants to see if the multitalented African pouched rat can help combat wildlife crimes by sniffing out illegally trafficked animals, such as the pangolin. The U.S. federal agency is spending $100,000 on a pilot project in Tanzania to train the rats to detect the scales of the pangolin, one of the most trafficked animals on the planet.”
Meanwhile, giant Gambian pouched rats remain persistently blamed, despite the chain of evidence, for the arrival in the U.S. of monkeypox, a milder cousin of smallpox.
Wrongly blamed for monkeypox outbreak
Health investigators initially traced the outbreak back to 18 Gambian giant pouched rats and an un-stipulated number of Ghanian dormice received on April 21, 2003 by Phillip
Moberly of Phil’s Pocket Pets in Villa Park, Illinois.
Phil’s Pocket Pets received the giant Gambian pouched rats from Evelee Prokes, owner of Menagerie Hill Farm near Cincinnati, Ohio.
Prokes, a pet dealer since 1978, had acquired the rats on April 15, 2003 from the importer, in Texas. Prokes told Des Moines Register staff writer Tony Leys on June 10, 2003 that federal officials had not found monkeypox in any of the giant Gambian pouched rats she handled, which left the dormice––almost never mentioned in published accounts of the episode––as the main suspects as the vectors for transmission.
Ghanian dormice infected prairie dogs
At Phil’s Pocket Pets the infected Ghanian dormice apparently spread monkeypox to at least 93 of about 200 prairie dogs who had arrived in April 2003 from another Texas distributor, Jason Shaw of U.S, Global Exotics, in Arlington.
Shaw had purchased 3,000 prairie dogs from Jacob W. Vanderpool, of Meade, Kansas. Vanderpool told Kansas City Star reporter Alan Bavley that he had “harvested” prairie dogs from his 840-acre ranch for the pet trade since 1996.
An infected prairie dog bought as a pet, not Gambian pouched rats, infected the human victims of the outbreak, a three-year-old, her mother, and her father, in Dorchester, Illinois.
Feds ignored warnings about trafficking
Despite the evidence that giant Gambian pouched rats were not the vectors for the monkeypox outbreak, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and Centers for Disease Control & Prevention ignored repeated telephoned and emailed warnings during the next several months from freelance humane investigator Linda J. Howard (1956-2006) that “Zoological Imports in Miami, Florida is advertising Gambian Pouched Rats (Cricetomys gambianus) and Prairie Dogs for sale on their web site, despite the CDC ban on commerce in these species which was issued on 11 June 2003.
“Incidentally,” Howard added, “the owner of Zoological Imports is Mario Tabraue, a convicted murderer and drug and animal smuggler.”
“Tiger King” connection
Tabraue, a convicted cocaine and marijuana smuggler, was sentenced in 1989 to serve 100 years in federal prison for his part in dismembering and burning the remains of former federal informant Larry Vance Nash, who was allegedly killed by Tabraue associate Miguel A. Ramirez in 1980.
Despite that, Tabraue was released from prison in just 12 years, at request of assistant U.S. attorney M. Patrick Sullivan, after providing evidence which helped to convict several lesser drug traffickers. Ramirez also turned federal witness, and was released from prison in 1996.
Tabraue in March 2020 was profiled, along with fellow wildlife dealers and exhibitors “Joe Exotic” Joseph Maldonado-Passage, Kevin Antle, and Tim Stark, and sanctuarian Carole Baskin, in the Netflix television series Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness.