From the mail bag. Here’s a question from Leslie T. from the U.S.A.

Why in your pictures/research you have gloves on? At first I thought it was due to possible contamination, or trying to avoid getting a scent on the babies, but the rats crawl all over you. Explain!

Gloves are a part of my PPE, Personal Protective Equipment*, I need to wear to keep me safe. I wouldn’t say that I’m at risk of contamination, but working with rodents – wild or domesticated – does carry risk of contracting diseases. Things I am most at risk of contracting from pouched rats in Tanzania include Leptospirosis, Rat Bite Fever, Rabies, and host of other things transmitted by fleas and ticks that are live as ectoparasites on the pouchies. 

* PPE also includes protective clothing such as lab coats and scrubs. In the lab I do wear protective clothing, but in the field everything gets dirty. 

There are three types of gloves that I wear to protect myself:

  1. Examination gloves
  2. Leather gloves
  3. Chain mail gloves

1. Examination gloves made from latex or nitrile are too thin to protect me from ANY bites from pouched rats, however they do provide protection against anything that may be in the pouched rats fluids, excrement or on its body. Pouched rats are known carriers of Leptospirosis, which can be transmitted in their urine. See picture above.

2. I wear suede leather gloves when handling pouched rats, especially when I am retrieving them from traps or removing them from cages or observation apparatuses. The gloves provide some bite protection, although it isn’t 100%. Leather gloves can be penetrated, even thick ones. But the thicker the glove the less dexterity I have. I need to be able to hold on to the poucded rat, securely and safely – for the pouched rat. Thick gloves won’t allow me to feel the pressure I am applying to the subject, so I prefer a less thick, more pliable leather material like suede. Other types of PPE gloves in this category include TurtleSkin Gloves, Bitebuster Gloves including those with long sleeves, and Kevlar sleeves for arm protection.

3. I previously included chain mail gloves in my PPE bag, but I never used them before and when we re-located to Cornell University I didn’t order any. Chain mail gloves provide penetration protection, but you will still feel pressure. Although chain mail gloves are thin enough, they are slinky. Whenever I lower or elevate my hands the gloves are always sliding on my hands. That makes handling pouchies a hassle.

Confession: The super intense training in occupational safety I received from Cornell University has really made me more cognizant of handling risks. I hadn’t always been very good about wearing examination gloves. Because I was primarily focused on biting risk, I only cared about keeping leather gloves and protective sleeves on hand. Plus, I prioritized (& still do) safely handling an animal over my own risk of getting bitten (and because I had never been bitten for nearly 3 years), I had this insanely cavalier attitude about handling wild rodents.

Another confession: The animals you see crawling all over me are young who were born in captivity and had been habituated to human handling. (I do not handle wild pouched rats so carefreely). They are babies who were accustomed to being handled and didn’t bite (or just nipped a little). Plus, they were healthy and presented no problems; but I cannot deny that the risk of them carrying something still exists. That’s true of any animal, a wild one especially. Ok, ok, ok. Maybe I’m still too cavalier, but hey I’m a mammalogist. We ain’t never scared. LOL!

Still my favorite photo, me with a juvenile pouched rat.