5:52 PM EST, December 3, 2012
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 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.
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.
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.”
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.
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