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The dog whisperer: The battle against rabies

Anna Czupryna spends four months a year in an Africa tourists never see, learning everything she can about the dogs in four rural villages. Her project − comparing two dog populations that receive rabies vaccinations with two that do not − is an important cog in the Serengeti Health Initiative, itself a vital part of the burgeoning global fight against rabies.

Editor's Note: This is part 2 of a 3-part series. Check back tomorrow for the final installment of the battle against rabies.

(MCT) NANGALE, Tanzania − Only 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 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'?"

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.


As the Land Rover leaves Nangale on this October day, Czupryna explains over the rattle of the diesel engine and the thump of rutted roads that she is closely tracking over 1,000 dogs, keeping tabs on mortality, birth rates, stress levels, general health and more. The results will let health officials know if, for instance, a rabies vaccination program results in there being many more dogs to vaccinate.

She presented preliminary data at a London conference for dog researchers in September. The population, she is finding, does not change dramatically if vaccinated, but overall the dogs of these villages are short-lived, with only about two-thirds of adults surviving from one year to the next. The primary causes of death are anorexia, an inability to find enough food, and predation, mostly from hyenas.

When she visits a Nangale household where one of her dogs has given birth, she spends a good 20 minutes bending and twisting to get a photo and a decent look into the cubbyhole it's in.

"Data point!" she says about the new additions.

Czupryna graduated Resurrection High School and DePaul University, where she received a biology degree. "I just loved animals. I wanted to be a veterinarian. I wanted to be a teacher," she says. "When I read all the (Jane) Goodall books, I wanted to be a chimp researcher."

Dogs were the constant, though.

Her father, Edward, recalls her, as a teenager, drawing up a work sheet to hold him to a promise. Her parents had said no to a dog throughout her childhood because they thought their apartment in the three-flat they owned was too small − but she could have one when she could take care of it.

Her presentation convinced her parents to yield. Now, in Tanzania when she gets back to her modest guest house at the end of a day in the field, Czupryna sees that dog. She turns on her laptop − electric company or generator permitting − and is greeted by a screen-filling image of a German shepherd.

It is a sad sight: Just before coming back to Tanzania this year, she had to have the dog put down, at age 13.

His name was Athos, Czupryna says, after the most mature and noble of French writer Alexandre Dumas' "Three Musketeers."


If Czupryna had built a life destined to lead to the work she is doing in Africa, it would probably look a lot like the one she's lived.

She learned about animals working at the veterinarian's office in her home neighborhood and, later, at the zoo, where she signed on as a volunteer docent.

"I did the seal talk a couple of times, and I did the chimp training talk," she says. "My favorite, though, was the African Journey," the zoo's name for its collection of animals from the continent.

Her meticulousness was honed preparing construction bids with her father, a teacher in Poland who's built a high-end home renovation business in Chicago. And in writing long memos.

"Anytime she leaves and we have to take care of her pets, there's always a 20-page manual," says her brother Rob, an accountant.

"It's a book," says her mother, Jozefa.

Czupryna's ease in foreign cultures could trace to her summers in Poland, 13 in a row. Or a summer abroad during college doing field research in Kenya, just to the north of Tanzania. Or a more recent trip to Argentina where, her parents say, she traveled 14 hours across the country by bus to meet a long-lost cousin.

"You kind of compartmentalize where home is," Czupryna says.

Her facility with language comes not just from listening to Rosetta Stone Swahili recordings before her first Tanzania visit, but from throwing herself into learning the languages − Swahili and Sukuma − once in-country. She grew up bilingual, English and Polish, plus enough Spanish to serve as a translator sometimes at the animal hospital, and a little Japanese, too.

And her friendly but commanding manner among strangers, she says, probably comes from the two post-collegiate years she spent teaching science at St. Scholastica Academy, a Catholic girls high school in the West Rogers Park neighborhood of Chicago, before deciding she really wanted to work with animals.

Says Czupryna, "The interconnectedness of the whole thing is quite amazing to me."

"She comes pretty much pre-adapted, pre-trained," says Brown, who shares the job of overseeing Czupryna's doctoral work with Lincoln Park Zoo conservation Vice President Lisa Faust, who earned her own doctorate under Brown's tutelage. "I say, 'Look, I have no idea if anything in life happens for a purpose, but a life well-lived in hindsight will look as if everything happened for a purpose.' And you (can) spot that hallmark in Anna."

In his years supervising researchers, he has encountered three types of people, he says.

Some let a foreign place and its hardships sap their energy. Some grit their teeth and get the job done. "And then there are some, and Anna falls into this category," Brown says, "where you learn to accept the place on its terms, to see the advantages and the opportunities, where you actually draw energy from the place, the entire ambience."

More draining has been the struggle to pay for it. Czupryna wants to come back next fall because the work needs another field season.

But although she starts writing proposals for research grants almost the minute she returns, usually in mid-December, to Chicago, where she has a home near Harlem and Foster avenues, she was able to win only a couple of small ones for 2012.

The zoo helps. Chunde Bigambo, its Tanzanian assistant project manager, spends the field season as Czupryna's research partner, driver, cultural ambassador and, in her words, "big brother." The vehicle, its fuel and her $2200 in research permits also come out of Lincoln Park Zoo's Tanzania budget.

But daily living and travel are Czupryna's responsibility. Her earnings at the animal hospital and as a teaching assistant at UIC don't leave a lot in savings. So she talks about returning to Tanzania in the conditional.

"Anna has chosen to select a very independent project," Brown says. "That creates financing on pins and needles."


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