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A squad of drug-sniffing squirrels is training to join China’s police

This is not a trained drug-sniffing squirrel from Chongqing, but you get the idea. (Niuniu/Getty Images/iStockphoto)
4 min

The newest prospective members of an anti-drug police squad are discreet, quick and agile. Once they’re fully trained, they could be deployed to large, complex sites such as logistics warehouses to uncover drugs that may be hidden there.

These are not elite narcotics officers. They are squirrels.

This week, a police unit in southwestern China said it had “successfully trained” six Eurasian red squirrels to sniff out drugs, as part of a national initiative to test the use of animals other than dogs in drug-busting operations.

Yin Jin, a police dog handler in Chongqing, China, assigned to train the squirrel anti-narcotics squad, told state media on Monday that the squirrels have done an “excellent job” in drug detection exercises so far.

However, it will probably be a while yet before the squirrels are deployed to actual drug busts, Yin said in an interview on Thursday.

News of the squirrel squad’s existence spread quickly in China. One video posted by the People’s Daily, the official publication of the Chinese Communist Party, appeared to show the squirrels sniffing various surfaces and darting between obstacles during lab tests, and went viral on Weibo, the popular microblogging site.

Yin told the state-run outlet Chongqing Daily on Monday that training the squad was the culmination of years of research.

“These squirrels have a rather keen sense of smell,” Yin said, adding that the rodents were trained to indicate through scratching whether they had detected drugs on a surface.

Squirrels and other rodents are good at drug detection because they have the ability to pass through nooks and crannies in compact spaces and to sniff out drugs hidden inside tightly packaged parcels, Yin said. More than 139 billion parcels were collected and delivered in China in 2022, according to the State Post Bureau, and authorities have reported recent cases where drugs were sent via post and masqueraded as tea or other legal products to avoid detection and seizure.

Still, this squad was a first because it took the police years to be confident that they were correctly training rodents for these kinds of operations. “Our techniques in training rodents was not mature enough before,” Yin said.

Police plan to do more real-world drills before putting the squirrels on active duty. “It’s probably going to take some time,” Yin told The Washington Post.

Some Weibo users half-jokingly expressed “jealousy” toward the squirrels for their seemingly cushy jobs as civil servants — a highly regarded position in China, especially amid an economic downturn. “These buddies are doing better than me,” wrote one woman who said she had failed the competitive civil servant examination last year.

A hashtag about the squirrel squad was trending on Thursday and had been viewed more than 51 million times on Weibo as of Thursday afternoon local time.

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China has strict anti-drug laws that are informed by its experience during the Opium Wars. In the mid- to-late-1800s, the ruling Qing dynasty’s attempts to prevent mostly British merchants from illegally importing opium into China sparked two conflicts in which China was forced to cede territory to the British, and led to widespread drug use. When the Chinese Communist Party came to power in 1949, it led a successful campaign to crack down on the domestic opium market.

China’s Narcotics Control Commission said in a statement shared last year by the Chinese Embassy to the United States that “over the past five years, China has endeavored to deepen the battle against drugs,” launching “special campaigns” to target the global drug supply chain. The commission said drugs circulating in China “were mainly from overseas.”

American authorities in recent years have also accused their Chinese counterparts of not doing enough to stop the flow of substances used to manufacture fentanyl from their territory, and said those substances often end up in the United States in the form of fentanyl imported by Mexican drug cartels. A recent report written by the Congressional Research Service stated that “cooperation on drug control issues has been severely strained since 2020,” when tensions between Washington and Beijing began to increase.

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As part of their domestic crackdown on drugs, Chinese authorities in 2018 launched the initiative to identify and train new animals, including rodents, to detect drugs.

Yin, who has been involved in the project since its launch, told the local Hechuan Daily: “Research like this requires innovativeness as well as the patience for a flower to bloom.”