Chicagoan saves one dog at a time from rabies in Africa

Living in Tanzania 4 months out of the year can be trying for Chicagoan Anna Czupryna, but her vaccination research for the Lincoln Park Zoo is the reward, helping to stamp out rabies

Lincoln Park Zoo researcher Anna Cupryna leads the rabies vaccination program to help eradicate rabies in domestic dogs in places surrounding Serengeti National Park. (Chris Sweda, Chicago Tribune)

NANGALE, TanzaniaOnly about half the dogs Anna Czupryna is studying in Tanzania have names. Dogs are different here. They are foragers and night watchmen who are treated more like livestock than pets.

But when the dogs of north-central Tanzania do get named, their owners tend to go big. Simba, Swahili for “lion,” “is probably the top name,” she says, “followed by Bush. There are a lot of Obamas. A lot of Saddams and Osamas, too.”

Czupryna, 31, has loved dogs since she was a girl growing up on Chicago’s Northwest Side, spending summers among animals in the Polish villages where her parents grew up.

As a teenager, she started working at the Portage Park Animal Hospital in her neighborhood. As an adult, she volunteered at the Lincoln Park Zoo. When she entered graduate school and it came time to pick a doctoral project, she zeroed in on the zoo’s rabies vaccination work on dogs in the Tanzanian villages that border the Serengeti National Park.

“What do these dogs eat? What is pup survival like? What do they do on a daily basis?” she says. “I just was curious. I just wanted to know.”

Now Czupryna (“choo-PREE-nuh”) spends four months a year in an Africa tourists never see, learning everything she can about the dogs in four rural villages, including Nangale and Sanungu, just southwest of the famous park. Her project — comparing two dog populations that receive the vaccinations with two that do not — is an important cog in the zoo’s Serengeti Health Initiative, itself a vital part of the burgeoning global fight against rabies.

For three years in a row she’s lived this hard life.

The distances between her villages are long. Grant money was scarce this year, so Czupryna stretches her own scant savings, eating the Tanzanian staple chipsi mayai — a plain omelet and fried potatoes — almost every night. She brushes her teeth with bottled water and often takes “bucket showers,” which means a big pail of water and a scoop. Sometimes the water is warm.

The climate is so hot and dusty that clean clothes are almost beside the point. For her days doing field research, Czupryna has a Monday-Wednesday outfit and then a Thursday-Saturday outfit. Each one consists of a gray T-shirt and earth-tone cargo pants to hide the dirt.

The days begin at sunup and often end close to midnight, in a room closed against the mosquitoes that can bring malaria. There, she processes canine fecal samples to bring to Chicago for further study. During the country's frequent power outages, she brings her laboratory outdoors, using the battery of the zoo's beat-up Land Rover to run her centrifuge.

It’s important and invigorating work, she says.

She is documenting a dog population that hasn’t been studied in such detail before. The information will be vital when dog vaccination programs become, she hopes, widespread in Africa and Asia and health officials decide to go after rabies full-throttle to prevent an estimated 70,000 deaths annually.

“The Serengeti is, in some respects, a pretty saturated patch,” says Joel Brown, the University of Illinois at Chicago biology professor who is Czupryna’s co-doctoral adviser. “(Scientists) can tell you the life expectancy of the wildebeest, of over 20 different predator species. They can’t tell you the life expectancy of domestic dogs.

“The dogs were basically a foci that might bite somebody and transmit rabies. Dogs were the center of this research.” But before Czupryna, he continues, “nobody was actually asking the dogs.”

She is also helping people who have little. These villages are so poor that children clamor for an empty plastic water bottle. The going day rate to hire an elected village leader to help with Czupryna’s dog demographic study is 7,000 Tanzanian shillings, about $4.35.

Their hardship, she says, leaves her even more impressed by the cooperation of the people whose dogs she studies.

“Can you imagine doing this in Chicago,” Czupryna asks, “knocking on some owner’s door, ‘Hey, I want to tattoo your dog. I want to collect its poo. And then there’s a six-page questionnaire’?”

'I just loved animals'

After her annual visits to their homes, she imagines them saying, “‘I'm not sure why she cares about these dogs so much. Must be a crazy muzungu thing.’”

“Muzungu” is Swahili for foreigner, and over the years it has come to mean, more specifically, “white foreigner.” But it doesn't seem to be used as a pejorative: At Tanzanian airports you can buy T-shirts that say “Muzungu” on the front.

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