(8/10)

This lighthearted documentary series profiles remarkable animals across the globe. This week’s show focuses on some small furry animals with a range of unexpected talents. In Tanzania, scientists have trained rats to detect patients with tuberculosis and locate landmines in fields. Meanwhile, back in the UK, ferrets are using their incredible flexibility to thread cables and unblock pipes in hard-to-reach places.

If there is one creature that tops the list of people’s ‘most hated animals’, it is the much-maligned rat. These furry, whiskery rodents will never triumph in any popularity contest. The general public perceives them to be dirty, dangerous and diseased, and the oft-quoted fact that a person is never far away from a rat only serves to send shivers down the spine. One man on the street sums it up best: “I think rats and humans just don’t mix.”

Yet in Tanzania, one breed of especially large rat has been taken to heart as a cuddly household pet. Moreover, these creatures – so long blamed for spreading disease – are actually helping to save human lives. Their powerful sense of smell has won them employment at a nearby research lab, where scientists have trained them to detect TB. The idea was the brainchild of Belgian scientist Bart Weetjens, who harbours a lifetime’s love of rodents. “As a boy, I was breeding rats, mice, hamsters, gerbils, all kinds of rodents,” he says. “They’re actually very nice creatures in spite of what’s being told about them.”

At the Apopo laboratory, researchers train rats to identify the smell of TB in samples of human saliva. A procedure that can take scientists up to a day can be completed by the rats in around seven minutes. This is a major advantage in treating a disease which kills half a million people a year.

The lab is also involved in a scheme to clear landmines across Africa. There are some 44 million explosives buried across the continent, and it is estimated that someone is maimed or killed by a mine every 30 seconds. The Apopo rats undergo a year of training to pick up the whiff of TNT from a mine, before being released into a field to hunt down the explosives. The lab’s star rat is Mandy, who after only eight months of training is now ready to be shipped to Mozambique, where she will become the latest rodent to put her nose to good use.

Closer to home, another furry superhero providing valuable services to humanity is the humble ferret. The National Ferret School in Derbyshire trains ferrets for all kinds of jobs, including pest control and helping to thread cables through pipes. They use their remarkable flexibility, including a bendy spine, to do what they do best – run down tunnels.

Headmaster of the ferret school James McKay admits that most people are unaware of the animal’s considerable skills. “I’ve had quite a few people who seem really surprised when you get there and you reach into your tool bag and, instead of pulling out lots of tools, you just pull out a ferret,” he says. The ferrets’ great advantage is that they can reach hard-to-find pipes and cables in a matter of seconds.

To demonstrate this talent, one of the school’s star pupils will compete in a challenge against father-and-son electricians Jonathan and Zach. Taz the ferret must thread a cable tied to his back through a winding plastic tube. The electricians must complete the same task using just their tools. Who will emerge triumphant in this battle of man versus ferret?

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