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Researcher Uses Yankee Ingenuity to Keep Working in Troubled Zaire : Africa: U.S. conservationist performs a variety of projects, mainly animal studies, at a French institute. Her reputation as a handler of vipers and pythons seems to keep troublemakers away.


KINSHASA, Zaire — Rampaging bands of looters and rioting mutineers have caused about 15,000 foreign workers to evacuate this capital city in recent weeks--flee for their lives is more like it--but Delfi Messinger, American, has chosen to stay.

For her own safety and with what used to be called Yankee ingenuity, she turned her workplace into a sanctuary.

She dressed her staff in hospital gowns and smeared across the entrance, in sheep's blood, "SIDA," the French equivalent of "AIDS." It worked.

The rioters, she said, "looked at me and fired their guns in the air," but did her no harm.

Messinger is a 37-year-old conservationist and former Peace Corps volunteer from Austin, Texas. Her workplace, for a variety of projects mainly concerned with animal studies, is on the grounds of the National Institute for Bio-Medical Research, a French institution that is right across the street from a military camp.

But the soldiers who ransacked Kinshasa's stores and businesses and residences for three days last September kept clear of the center until French Foreign Legionnaires arrived to restore order and supervise the evacuation.

For anyone who couldn't read her "AIDS" warning, it didn't hurt that Messinger also had a reputation locally as a handler of vipers and pythons. Indeed, when the Legionnaires saw the snakes, they left too.

Messinger's resourcefulness is of the sort required of expatriates hardy enough to remain in this central African nation, formerly the Belgian Congo, whose infrastructure began crumbling almost immediately after independence 31 years ago. Only a few hundred foreigners, mostly missionaries, remain.

French Ambassador Henri Rethore wrote Messinger to express his government's thanks for the actions she took "to preserve the facility and research capacity of this important project . . . from the pillaging that took place elsewhere in Kinshasa."

Messinger also was left to keep watch on equipment used in the U.S. Project AIDS, which was based partly at the French institute. The American research project was the biggest in Africa and had been collecting valuable data before its American staff was evacuated.

"To protect my animals I had to protect the lab," Messinger said.

Messinger arrived in July, 1984, to work on a Peace Corps project in the Kasai, the geographical center of the country. First she taught agriculture and later worked in a study of monkey pox, a serious health problem in some areas.

"Ever since then I've been around, doing this and that," she said.

Her training in animal science--she graduated from Southwest Texas State University--didn't prepare her for a career in logistics. But her seven years in Zaire is as good as a doctorate.

In 1987 the institute agreed to let her use their two-acre center as a base for her conservation projects. In return, she had to take care of the institute's sheep, chickens and laboratory rats and mice.

Another of her projects, on behalf of the European Community, is the breeding in captivity of cane rats, whose meat is considered a delicacy and a possible good source of protein for an impoverished country like Zaire.

The institute, due to the same logistic problems Messinger faces, hasn't been able to do much of the kind of research its sponsors intended, she said. A diagnostic clinic runs blood and other tests on up to 150 patients referred to it, to help pay costs.

Messinger is left pretty much on her own. "They're really lenient with me. I am totally in charge of my own little department, I know there are certain boundaries, I couldn't bring an elephant here. Well, maybe I could, if I put it over behind the building over there. They let me do my own thing, as long as I find my own monies."

Expatriates who fled left many animals with Messinger, including an antelope named Cleopatra. It died, but cats, dogs and one calf survived.

Her office door bears a sign saying "Welcome to the Zoo." Dozens of zoo patches, from Johannesburg to Alberta, sit under a glass panel on her desk.

Her files are marked, "Cats, Rats, Bats, Gnats," and so on. But they are only a code. "Maggots" means receipts, she explained.

Her project has become home to stray animals ranging from cats to vipers.

"We used to have a lot more snakes but we trimmed them down because they were eating us out of house and home," Messinger said.

The inventory also includes two genets, a palm-spotted civit, Gambian rats, 25 monkeys, five chimpanzees, eight Bonabos, guinea pigs, a couple dozen rabbits, several hundred rats and several hundred mice, sheep, a flock of chickens and two red forest hogs.

The animals live in cages designed by Messinger to minimize contact with keepers, and to demonstrate that Zairians can build their own equipment locally, at low cost.

Her favorite snake is an import from North America, a King snake. "Some Zairians can identify their own snakes and they know which is poisonous and which isn't. With the King snake they cannot tell. It isn't poisonous but it bites like hell. I let it bite me and when I don't drop dead, well . . . "

She also has a hybrid viper that is half rhinoceros viper and half Gabon viper.

"Herpetologists would drool over this snake. It's a beautiful snake. It's a natural snake. I've had it for about 2 1/2 years and unlike most vipers that settle down in captivity and almost become like slugs, she has not tamed down. If you just touch her cage or just walk by she will start hissing. She is very, very aggressive."

And if she was forced to leave, she said, her first goal would be to get back as soon as possible.

"They have an incredible forest here. Environmental groups were just getting to the point where they were saying we could actually do something here. Well, now it's all collapsed."

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