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The love between a child and his tortoise is a love that isn't contingent on anything. What, after all, can a turtle do? It doesn't wag its tail, it isn't stunning and it doesn't purr softly. You can't pet it. It's a gray sort of thing and absolutely doesn't return love. All a tortoise knows is how to be a tortoise. But Tomer Paz and Shir Michel, 12-year-olds from Mevasseret Zion, think that they're "really cute."

Last Friday in the Hashalom schoolyard, they wrinkled their foreheads andcouldn't explain why. Each in turn related that in their own backyards they are raising a tortoise couple, a male and female. Tomer has Zadok and Batya, Shir has Sasson and Yaffa.

These aren't children who are keeping a tortoise in a shoebox until it disappears mysteriously or their enthusiasm wanes. They feed them, care for their surroundings and stroke their shells with a cautious finger. For their part, the tortoises have been loyal to their masters for two years now.

Recently, at the command of higher powers, they have ceased to function as pets and have dug in for their hibernation. Tomer and Shir are pleased that the turtles have dug in. But when the animals wake up and look around the yard again, Tomer and Shir will have to give them up, and release them back into nature, for the benefit of the hothouse at their school. They have already promised their classmates. After all, they are participating in a project for the rescue and study of tortoises at their school, and they have to serve as an example.

At Hashalom School in Mevasseret Zion, they have lessons in "animal research" and "environmental research." These contemporary names replace the old subject "nature," but also imply a different, more active approach. The idea is to study the natural environment of the children and the school.

In every age group they research something different. Thus, for example, in first grade pupils learn about the wild birds in the environs of the school while in third grade they have rehabilitated the winter pools in Nahal Halilim near the school so as to return toads to them.

That is how the initiative to rescue tortoises began in the sixth grade. Amit Almog, the teacher in charge of environmental activity at the school, relates that from conversations with the children he realized that many of them are raising tortoises.

"Most of the children here live in single-family homes on a bit of land," he says, "and there is something natural that immediately connects between a child and a tortoise."

At one time there were many tortoises in nature but today the tortoise population in Israel is in danger of extinction, mostly because of the construction work that is taking over their habitats, but also because they are removed from their natural environments. Raising tortoises in a private garden is against the law, because the tortoise is a protected animal.

Almog and the school's nature trustees - children from all grades who volunteer to help the nature activities - went around the classrooms and asked who was raising tortoises. The survey found that 40 tortoises were being kept in the students' backyards. The children promised to put their tortoises in the custody of the school.

Almog, who has been teaching at the school for three years on behalf of the Karev Foundation, has visited the other schools in Mevasseret and there too the children have promised to bring tortoises. "This requires a process," says Almog, "because the children want to keep them."

Shir and Tom admit that they will have a hard time separating from their pets. Some of the children have said that they can't find their tortoises. No doubt they have dug in to hibernate. "At the end of the winter we will embark on another campaign to persuade the children," says Almog.

Six of the tortoises came from the nearby amusement center for children at Kibbutz Tzuba, the Keftzuba, where they were found by employees. Several families from moshavim and other locales in the area heard about the program to rescue tortoises, contacted Almog and donated their tortoises. Altogether, there are now 10 tortoises at the school.

"Our goal is to breed the tortoises," Almog explains. "We will raise them in comfortable surroundings, we will let the little tortoises get strong and then we will release them into nature."

In the meantime, the children are studying them. Every three days they are weighed by different children, in turn. At first glance it appears easy to pick up a tortoise whose head is dangling down and weigh him on a scale, but it is necessary to be accurate when weighing.

It is a matter of just a few grams and there are already conclusions; tortoises might not dream during their winter sleep, but they definitely gain weight.