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Hero Rat

Hero Rat, sculpture by Ellen Woodbury

“Hero Rat” is a sculptural homage to Magawa, an African giant pouched rat who sniffed out landmines in Cambodia. He was extraordinarily good at his job and a British organization awarded him a gold medal for his heroism.


I first read about Magawa when he was a working rat clearing landmines hidden in the ground since the Vietnam War in Cambodia. He passed away from natural causes in October 2021, and I wanted to honor his accomplishments. There are few stone monuments to famous rats, and Magawa’s achievements are significant in many ways.

One Heroic Rat

Magawa spent five years of his eight-year life clearing more than 100 landmines and other explosive devices from over 55 acres of land in Cambodia.   He saved many human lives and created once-again usable land. He also created an enormous respect for the worth and talents of animals with whom we share this planet and its resources.

Magawa was trained through a Belgian non-profit organization called APOPO, which trains rats to detect landmines in Southeast Asia and Africa. He was their best mine-sniffing rat ever.  In 2020 he was awarded a gold medal for “true bravery and devotion to duty” by a British charity called the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals. Dogs had been the only recipients of this gold medal up until Magawa.

African Giant Pouched Rat

The African Giant Pouched Rat, also known as the Gambian Pouched Rat, can weigh up to nine pounds and can grow to 35 inches from tip of nose to tip of tail. This is a fairly large animal, but light enough that it does not trigger landmines to explode.

The giant pouch refers to the rat’s cheek pouches, similar to a hamster’s, which they use to carry food. These cheek pouches are so large that some rats must empty their cheeks before entering their burrows since their stuffed cheek pouches will not fit thorough the burrow entrance.

African giant pouched rats have an amazing sense of smell. In the wild they spend their lives sniffing out interesting things, loading them up in their cheeks, and bringing them back to their burrows.

Training to Sniff TNT

Humans at APOPO train rats to sniff out TNT by putting the substance in tea balls, the small metal household containers we fill with tea leaves to make tea. When the rat sniffs a tea ball, the human gives it a treat as a reward for sniffing the TNT.

Rats are very smart animals, and catch on quickly to the reward system. When the rat makes this connection, the tea ball is buried and the rat must sniff to find the TNT tea ball and scratch the dirt to dig it up. This training is repeated until the rat has the procedure down pat.  Sniff to find the TNT, scratch the dirt, get a reward like watermelon, banana, or peanuts. Rats sniff for landmines several hours per day for 6 days per week, then refresh their training by digging up TNT tea balls in return for treats on their day off. 

Hero Rat View 2, sculpture by Ellen Woodbury
Homage to Magawa, the land mine-sniffing rat.   Photo by Mel Schockner.


Humans take advantage of the African giant pouched rat’s amazing sense of smell. Rats take advantage of humans’ ability to supply delicious things to eat. Rats find the landmines that the humans then dig up. Together they clear land that was once deadly, and make it safe for everybody.

Raspberry Alabaster

The stone is the brown version of Raspberry Alabaster. I used a similar block to create “Bunny-Whirl” several years ago. The color is fantastic! As in nearly every instance of colored stone, one must work for success in the finish. Each colored layer has a different degree of hardness.  Some layers are extremely soft and porous while other layers are very hard.

Hard and soft layers require the perfect push/pull of pressure on the surface of every form to insure that no ripples develop during the finishing process. This varying degree of inconsistent pressure must be maintained from the rasp stage, which is the first finishing tool, all the way to the final sandpaper grit at 600. Finishing this stone is an exercise in patience and self-control, with perfection as the goal.

This is not unlike the relationship between the African giant pouched rat and the human trainer. The stone has the glorious color; the rat has the amazing natural ability. It is up to the human to bring the desired outcome to the process.

Stone Sculpture Bases

The base in a stone sculpture is like the frame around a painting—it must compliment the art but not upstage it. I designed the base for “Hero Rat” to be a pedestal for a great hero. The wood and marble layers subtly echo the brilliant stripes in the stone.   I want to elevate Magawa’s monument to the high stature that suits his heroic accomplishments.

Since the pandemic began, I have been working with The Base Shop here in Loveland, CO, to design and make the bases for my stone sculptures. Bryan Wright, the owner and top talent, knows nearly everything about sculpture presentation from small heroic rat monuments to enormous outdoor sculpture installations.

His materials include wood, stone, and metal in a stunning variety of colors and textures. I often ask his advice on combining materials and he has recommended some wonderful combinations. I love the combination of wood and stone layers we invented for “Hero Rat”.

One of my favorite bases he made is for “Tazz Like Jazz”, a combination of red and black granite with a layer of aluminum between the stones. The lively layers of color enhance the whirling energy of the sculpture. It is a pleasure to work with Bryan and Debra, and I am so happy to support our local sculpture artisans. Loveland is truly Sculpture Town!

Working Together

I work alone as a stone sculptor, but I work with a team of highly talented collaborators who provide beautiful bases, gorgeous photographs (by Mel Schockner), and excellent packing and shipping (by Shippers’ Supply Custom Pack).

We all achieve more by working together, whether it is with other humans or other animals. Each of us has talents we can offer to make our lives richer, safer, and more fun; to realize our goals, and make our world a better place to live.

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    • Thank you, Nancy! I am so glad he resonates with you! I read about Magawa several years ago and thought land mine-sniffing rats were terrific. When he died last year (Oct. 2021) I knew I had to make a sculpture to commemorate his achievement and also to remember him. The human world is so caught up in itself and I want to be reminded that it is actually the human and animal world. We share the planet with so many fascinating species, and they makes our lives rich just by being there. When you consider their talents and natural abilities they become little miracles. They are a source of delight, so we come full circle to this delightful sculpture.