Magawaga reminds you to be your best rat self

By Mo Juenger, Print Managing Editor

It’s a weird feeling to know that a rat did more for world peace in eight years than you’ll likely ever do in your lifetime. 

Magawa, African pouched rat and winner of a gold medal from the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals, died this month. Over his eight-year lifespan, Magawa sniffed out more than 100 landmines in Cambodia. 

He was a part of Belgian nonprofit Anti-Personnel Landmines Detection Product Development (APOPO)’s “HeroRAT” program, which trains rats to detect and alert handlers to landmines in Southeast Asia. APOPO officials identified Magawa as the most successful participant in the program yet, clearing over 10 football fields worth of land for safe passage by Cambodian residents. 

Magawa was born in 2013 and began training with APOPO in 2016. Like other rodents in the HeroRAT program, he could clear large swaths of land days quicker than a person with a metal detector. 

The landmines Magawa searched for are remnants of decades of conflict and war throughout the country. They have caused more than 64,000 civilian deaths and provide enormous barriers to health and safety throughout Cambodia. 

Over the past two years, I have thought a lot about Magawa. As World News Editor in 2020, when he received his medal for bravery, I wrote about him in the Lighter Side in the Oct. 10, 2020 edition of Newswire. For reference, that Lighter Side also contained blurbs about Kraft’s new pumpkin spice mac ‘n cheese, parrots reprimanded for swearing and a lawsuit in which Subway’s bread was deemed “too sugary to legally be considered bread.” 

Looking back, this seems like a disparity. Pumpkin spice macaroni should not inhabit the same news realm as the safety of millions of Cambodians. But why is it so easy to lump stories like this together in the first place?

Newswire, like nearly every news organization, lacks a space for pure, good news. And when we readers hear pure, good news — like a rat who has quite literally saved thousands of lives — we have a strange inclination to minimize it. We consider it cute and light, like Fat Bear Week and Florida Man follies. 

If the Cambodian government took this action without the aid of a very cute rat, this news story would look very different. People in power would be receiving Nobel Peace Prizes, not UK “animal hero” awards. As consumers of news, we recognize a heroic act in a vacuum, but we lend too much weight to who’s completing it.

The death of Magawa has forced me to reconsider how I look at good news. I’m analyzing how I perceive the action and the actors; yes, it was a rat who completed it, but at the end of the day, Magawa’s work led to increased safety and freedoms for a country deeply wounded by civil war.

Magawa has inspired me, mostly because a rat did so much more to make the world a better place than I ever felt like I could. But for a while, I refused to accept the gravity of the goodness he did in the world simply because he was a rat. 

As we reflect on Magawa’s impact, I’m challenging you to accept good news as it comes, whether it comes in the form of UNICEF or puppies. Don’t let yourself believe that good news is small, just because it manifests in strange ways. Give this rat a damn Nobel Peace Prize, and let yourself be joyful when good news appears.