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)

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, 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.”

'Hard slog' abroad

The Land Rover is stopped on the street in Bariadi, the regional capital where Czupryna and Bigambo keep rooms and have set up their field office. A man approaches the window, exchanges greetings with the researchers in the Sukuma language and hands her a package.

She lights up as she unwraps it.

Inside are photos of her with her family — mom, dad, two brothers — that she left on a wall in a previous guest house.

Their absence had been on her mind. “Now I can hang these up,” she says, “and now I can really call the hotel home.”

A catalog of other items she misses: lettuce, cheese, chocolate — specifically the Chocolate Thunder from Down Under dessert at Outback Steakhouse. Deep-dish pizza. Christmas music.

“I haven’t had Thanksgiving in three years,” she says. (Later, in a November email, she’ll write, “I think we are just going to have a chipsi mayai Turkey Day, which is fine. I'm really excited to get home to Chicago for Christmas, though.”)

Living in Tanzania can frustrate even the hardiest visitors. Its fluid sense of time, where appointments are often approximations, can be especially hard on Czupryna, who, for all her adaptability, is also a planner and, in her words, “a bit of a control freak.”

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