Impulse 69: Board Notes

Mark Laskow


A slight lull in the hectic life of your dedicated Board Notes essayist (that’s me) allowed me to retrieve from my inbox a special story that has been calling for attention. It is the story of a rat who in 2020 received an award for “lifesaving bravery.” Was the Carnegie Hero Fund facing competition from a very unexpected direction?

Magawa is no ordinary rat. He is a giant African pouched rat who was carefully trained by APOPO, a Belgian charity, to locate landmines and other unexploded ordnance. APOPO trained 45 rats to detect these weapons and another 31 rats to detect tuberculosis in humans. Magawa was the most successful with the discovery of 39 landmines and 28 items of other ordnance. That’s quite a body of work for a rodent weighing in at 2 to 3 pounds.

Now, you can never go wrong with an animal story, and these rats are cute. You can check that out on the internet: for example,“Meet the Giant Rats That Are Sniffing out Landmines on (Go ahead. What is the internet for if not looking at cute animal pictures?) As entertaining as this is, though, the story of Magawa surfaces interesting and serious issues. Could Magawa win the Carnegie Hero Medal? No, but it’s fun to think about. More importantly, understanding why Magawa can’t win the Carnegie Medal tells you a lot about the humans who did. That’s why I am writing about rats.

Let’s set aside the easiest obstacles to Magawa’s candidacy, like the fact that Andrew Carnegie clearly intended the Carnegie Medal go to human rescuers. Animal advocates might argue his decision, but I’m not.

Next, let’s think about risk. I assume that these pouched rats were selected because, at less than three pounds, they shouldn’t trigger the pressure switches on land mines. But … would you want to bet your life on a regular basis that these mines, possibly Soviet-era leftovers, were precisely built and conscientiously maintained? Not me. Let’s check the “risk” box in Magawa’s favor.

Two remaining issues require more thought. First, should we classify Magawa as a professional “rescuer” and thus ineligible for the Carnegie Medal? Second, did the rat understand the risk? These two issues are actually intertwined. As we regularly explain, Carnegie heroes make a moral and a mortal choice: mortal because it is potentially fatal and moral because the heroes are voluntarily, and with a clear understanding of the consequences, taking on that risk.

A giant African Pouched Rat being trained to find explosives by the U.S. Army Research Laboratory. Photo courtesy of U.S. Army Research Laboratory.

Although Magawa might well have saved a human life, perhaps several, that wasn’t his intention. He was trained to perform tasks for food. He knew nothing about landmines or their lethality or what might happen to him if something went wrong. What Magawa knew was that, if he did exactly what the giant hairless apes (that would be us humans) trained him to do, he would earn some Purina Giant African Pouched Rat Chow.

We should all applaud Magawa’s skill and the imagination and dedication of his trainers from APOPO, but clearly the Carnegie Medal does not apply.

Magawa’s story shines a special light on what Carnegie Heroes do. Their rescues are not routine actions for which they are highly trained. The emergencies they confront are a terrifying departure from their lifetime experience, and the rescues they attempt are far beyond anything they have ever been called on to do. What’s more, the Carnegie Medal requires that its recipients clearly understand the dangers of the rescue before they act. If someone gets involved in a dangerous rescue without knowing the risk involved, that’s just a mistake. If they undertake a dangerous rescue in full knowledge of those risks, that’s a moral choice that will earn them the Carnegie Medal.

Finally, fret not because our friend Magawa can’t win a Carnegie Medal, for he has earned his bling elsewhere. In the UK in 2020 the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals awarded him their Gold Medal for animal bravery. Good on you, Magawa, and on your human friends at APOPO!