Chicagoan saves one dog at a time from rabies in Africa

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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)

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.”

Right fit for the job

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.

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