Rats and Humans, (Re)Constituted Relationalities after War

From the Series: Ecologies of War

"white mesa burden" by Teresa Montoya, 2021.

Belgian NGO Anti-Persoonsmijnen Ontmijnende Product Ontwikkeling (APOPO; Anti-Personnel Landmines Removal Product Development) innovated landmine detection in the early 2000s by using explosive detection rats in Mozambique and Tanzania. In 2015, after much negotiation with the government, APOPO imported these rats to Cambodia to implement its technique. Ever since, the use of rats in landmine detection has disrupted life on Cambodian minefields in two ways: by altering how deminers see each other and by altering the choreography of demining. The altered choreography set scenes that constituted new relationalities after war, reconfiguring the humans and nonhumans found on a minefield.

Before the arrival of rats, deminers in Cambodia used metal detectors or dogs to find explosives. To conduct either technique, a platoon divided into individuals-as-units and each person combed through a section of the minefield with their respective means of detection held out before them. While platoons of deminers work as teams, without rats the work is choreographed in rows of individual people laboring under a hot sun. Deminers rarely looked up because they needed to focus on the ground. Most minefields I visited during research trips were characterized by tedious and silent work.

The silence of demining work reinforced suspicions among coworkers because many deminers were former combatants. Due to Cambodia’s history of civil wars, this sometimes meant that people in the same platoon had once faced each other as enemies. However, the rat altered the fears that characterized minefields by altering the relations that constitute them. Despite being called “technologies” by the NGO, the deminers understood the rats as distinct beings who pushed the conventional boundaries of war by constituting relationalities with human and nonhuman coworkers.

When demining, one can’t overlook the relevance that rats are both technologies and beings. The claim that rats are a technology comes from the demining industry itself, where rats and other creatures like dogs, bees, and fungi are called “biological technologies” for their use in detection techniques (Habib 2007). In a review of literature on materialism and its relation to ecological anthropology, Tim Ingold (2012) observes that humans and other beings are materialities and technologies. He suggests that separating material and ecological frameworks risks ignoring how materialities (like explosives) are constitutive of the relations that give beings form. In parallel, Kim TallBear (2017) notes that the very ideas of abiotic-biotic, human-nonhuman, and “interspecies” have taken for granted the givenness of the categorical distinctions they impose on relations. Drawing from the ways in which Cambodian deminers understood rats, as both technologies and beings, “confound[s] the Western animacy hierarchy” (2017, 180) that troubles the perception and emergence of things on a minefield.

Take Frederic, for example. The kennel held a total of sixteen crates; each crate housed a rat. Frederic was the only one who stayed awake in the late afternoon.

Together, we watched Frederic gather straw frantically to pad his crate, perhaps trying to line it the way he might insulate an underground burrow. Spit-matted straw fell through the wires.

“Which one is your favorite?” asked Sokha, the vet.

“Frederic,” I said, sympathizing with his Sisyphean task.

“Good choice,” Sokha smiled.

As favorites, beloveds, and friends, the rats conditioned possible relationalities for human colleagues who were also former enemies. The ways in which the rats altered the choreography of landmine detection brought deminers into new practices of coordination. No longer singular individuals, they walked in pairs with a rat between them (see image).

Donna Haraway uses the concept of “string figure” to draw attention to the ways in which worlds are (re)configured through processes that entangle and disentangle actors, categories, and practices. For Haraway, string figures are “imploded” materialities and metaphors, interlinked so that each configures, refigures, and reconfigures the other (1994, 63–65). I like to play with this idea of string to describe the collapse of the individualities on the minefield as well as the blurring of boundaries between human-animal, technology-kin, and enemies. The minefield’s new choreographies, accompanied by string and bio, have also changed the ways humans see each other. Instead of individuals walking one by one, rats bring pairs of deminers with histories of enmity to share in each other’s attention for a nonhuman companion, face each other, and learn to move together.

Photo 1. A screenshot from landmine detection rat training by Darcie DeAngelo, 2015.

To find landmines with a rat, two deminers tie twine to their ankles and face each other, separated by a mine-riddled pit spanning 200 meters. A rat is attached to the string. The animal is trained to walk across the minefield, from one deminer to the other. Every time the rat pauses, the humans watch her carefully. When she scratches twice, they mark the spot on a map of the pit. The double scratch indicates that she has found the scent of an explosive. When the rat completes her walk from one deminer to the other, the humans step in unison along the pit’s border. The three continue, a human pair and rat, until the pit has been searched (see figure).

Figure 1. An approximate figure of landmine detection training by Darcie DeAngelo, 2015.

Frederic insisted on building a nest when he couldn’t. Veronica hated her harness. Merry squeaked in his sleep, prompting one deminer to infer that he had nightmares. Similarly, Issac became another deminer’s “little sister,” despite being the largest rat of the platoon—and a male. When I asked Moch why she called Issac “little sister,” she explained: “Love. I know he’s an animal and that he is male, but I just feel like he is my little sister.” By giving careful attention to the rats and by telling stories that allowed them to share in each other’s attention, the deminers learned to relate to each other differently.


Habib, Maki K. 2007. “Controlled Biological and Biomimetic Systems for Landmine Detection.Biosensors and Bioelectronics 23(1): 1–18.

Haraway, Donna Jeanne. 1994. “A Game of Cat’s Cradle: Science Studies, Feminist Theory, Cultural Studies.Configurations 2(1): 59–71.

Ingold, Tim. 2012. “Toward an Ecology of Materials.Annual Review of Anthropology 41: 427–42.

TallBear, Kim. 2017. “Beyond the Life/Not-Life Binary: A Feminist-Indigenous Reading of Cryopreservation, Interspecies Thinking, and the New Materialisms.” In Cryopolitics: Frozen Life in a Melting World, edited by Joanna and Emma Kowal Radin, 179–202. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.