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)

She has a limited time in the country and 405 households she has to visit. Anything, a flat tire, rain washing out a road, a local helper who misses a meeting, can throw her schedule off.

But there are many charms, too: “Finally landed in Serengeti,” she posted on Twitter in late August (@AnnaSerengeti), “after not one, not two, but rather THREE landing attempts due to giraffe on the runway!” Czupryna almost seems more at home in the grit and grime during her field-research days — talking with people, squatting in the dirt, dangling their dogs from a hand-held scale, to the delight of the children — than during several days spent at the research house the zoo rents in the middle of the Serengeti park. She uses the time to fill out expense reports and log in photographs of dogs and wildlife, but she always seems ready to get going again.

The house, scruffy like an overused ski lodge, is very different from the hotels elsewhere in the park, where $300 a night is a bargain. You don’t walk outside, for fear of becoming lunch. A lioness and her two cubs live in the kopje, or rock outcropping, next to the house.

Two years ago, Czupryna was working in the kitchen when she heard a noise from the living room. She had let her guard down and left the front door open, and a male baboon took advantage of the opportunity to get inside; Czupryna remembered to make herself as big and loud as possible, and, luckily, the ape sauntered back outdoors.

The refrigerator, aged and broken, has become additional shelf space. Critters discovered the tomatoes Czupryna and Bigambo brought from the Bariadi market, ruining half of them. And electricity is guaranteed only three hours per night, when park authorities run the generator and everybody rushes to recharge camera batteries, cellphones and laptops.

But this night, there are treats. Felix Lankester, the British expatriate who, until recently, was Lincoln Park Zoo’s project manager in Tanzania and will continue working with the Serengeti Health Initiative in his new post at Washington State University, has flown in with cheese, sausages and samosas.

As they prepare the comparatively lavish dinner, Lankester quizzes Czupryna about the boyfriend she had back home the last time he talked to her. The words are indistinct but, clearly, the news is not good. Being gone four months a year, living sort of like a touring musician, Czupryna says later, is not easy on the love life.

“It’s an incredibly hard slog,” Lankester says. ”You have to be very dedicated and very patient and prepared to live in the rural communities for long periods of time.

“She’s dedicated to the dogs. She loves dogs. But she’s also a good scientist, and she’s got great enthusiasm to learn more about demography. She’s interested, and she likes being out here.”

Gifts given and received

It is early afternoon at the Sanungu Primary School, where 1,312 children learn in cinder-block buildings that form a “C” around a central yard. The classrooms have dirt floors, and only kids in the equivalent of seventh grade and above get desks.

A teacher with good English skills insists on showing visitors from Chicago a classroom. ”Excellent,” one of the visitors says, trying to be polite.

“This is the environment for learning in our school,” the teacher says. “It is not excellent.” Czupryna and Bigambo are here to lead an open-air school assembly. They take turns speaking, in Sukuma, about rabies — what it is, how to treat it and the importance of bringing dogs in for the annual vaccination days that the Lincoln Park Zoo team conducts in Sanungu and other villages.

Take the message to the children, the theory goes, because, in Tanzania, they are in charge of a family's dogs.

The school visit is not part of Czupryna’s research, but it does help make her known in the community and ease her entry into homes. Whenever possible, she will veer off from collecting dog data to help the team out on vaccination days.

“We vaccinated 348 dogs in Nangale village today!” read a mid-September tweet.

When the talk is done, she and Bigambo distribute gifts: two pencils per student, the girls accepting them with a curtsy. The captains of the boys and girls soccer teams are called forward and Czupryna hands each a special soccer ball she has brought from the United States: Designed for developing countries, they won't deflate.

At the households she visits for her study, she hit upon another kind of gift she could give. After she finishes each session of dog inquiry, she poses the whole family together for a photo. Often, the families insist that she be in the picture.

Using ”the magical bus driver system,” as she calls it — a network of drivers like the one that delivered the recovered photos of her family — she'll send a CD off to a city to get prints made. And when those prints come back, she presents the portraits to the families.

“In these parts,” she explains, “a lot of people, if they've had their picture taken, they’ve never actually seen that picture later.”

Czupryna gets a gift of her own in November.

The zoo, after planning its budget for the vaccination project in coming years, lets her know it is going to hire her to help run it. It means she can return next year and finish her research, and it means a break in her anxiety about money.

“What a relief!” she says via email.

She’ll be able to apply her research to vaccination planning and give up her teaching assistantship, leaving her time to start writing her doctoral thesis.

Included in the data she has gathered for the thesis are the names people have given their dogs. And in those lists exists another kind of gift Czupryna has received. Along with the Simbas and the Obamas, there are now dogs in Tanzania named Anna.
Twitter @StevenKJohnson

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