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Moran Shmuel is trying to attract the attention of the most aggressive parrot in the petting zoo at Neve Tirza women's prison.

"He's already bitten me. But I love him. He's in a cage too," she says, laughing. "I call him Dror (freedom)."

Shmuel, 26, has been sentenced to two and a half years for threats, aggravated injury and theft. This is her third prison sentence. Growing up with a drug-addicted father, she started using heroin and cocaine at the age of 12. "I grew up in a very violent environment," she says.

Six months ago she joined the 'petting zoo' program, which was launched at the beginning of the year following the success of a similar project at the Ofek Juvenile Prison.

"This place is relaxing, when I'm here I manage to forget I'm in jail," Shmuel says.

Chief Warden Ronit Matzliah says that 84 of the prison's 200 inmates are mentally ill.

"Petting Zoo is one way to calm down and reach these women. Half of them are single mothers, or mothers whose children have been put up for adoption or foster care. They find comfort in the petting zoo. Contact with the softness of the animals relieves their loneliness and eases their maternal pain."

The animal compound consists of geese and cages with hares, chinchillas, hamsters, parrots, iguanas and rats. It also has fish tanks.

Walida, one of the four inmates in charge of the petting zoo, is serving a 25 year prison term. She started using drugs at 13 and has been a junkie as long as she can remember - until she arrived at the prison six years ago.

In prison, Walida, 32, cleaned up for the first time in her life. "I'm attached to all the animals. Some of the women don't pick up the rats or don't touch the iguanas or the aggressive parrot. I'm not disgusted or repelled by them, because I too was disgusting once and repelled people. Why is the animal to blame? Isn't the rat as worthy of care as the hare?" she asks.

Walida has no idea where her daughter, who has been given to adoption and will turn 13 in February, is.

"My maternal feelings are at their strongest here with the animals. You want to give care and warmth, but have no one to give it to. So you look after bunnies whose mother has no maternal instinct, or make a protective space for a hare that's being attacked. You even look for an adoptive family among the staff for some animals, when it gets too crowded," she says.

"I grew up in a clean, well-kept home but got only crumbs," says Michaela, 24, standing beside the hamster cage. She has served six out of a 15-year sentence for murder and robbery. As she talks, she bursts into tears and the Prison Service staff listening to her can't resist and cry with her.

She came to Israel at the age of 10 and at 11 became addicted to light drugs. At 13 she became hooked on heroine and at 18 went to jail.

"In prison I realized that there was no escape. I promised myself I'd try to change. Only here with the animals I feel an island of sanity. Here you see the natural cycle of life - a hamster has babies, she keeps them by her side, nobody takes them away from her. They're protected," says Michaela, one of the petting zoo's caretakers.

When Lady the hare sank into postpartum depression and stopped taking care of her leverets, the women tried in vain to keep them alive. When Lady gave birth again, they managed to save most of them. The third time all the leverets survived. The prison, with its rigid roll calls and schedule, bent the rules to enable the caretakers to visit the animal pen every two hours to look after the leverets.

"When she first gave birth I looked after one of the little ones for three days, every two hours, and in the end it didn't survive the night and died in my hand," says Michaela. "I couldn't stop crying. I didn't know what to do with myself. I said to myself: what's up with you? This isn't your child. You took someone's life. You're crying over a hare you've become attached to for three days. You think you have memories? The relatives of the person you murdered have years of memories. But in the last delivery, when we managed to save the leverets, I couldn't help thinking that although I took someone's life, which is bad and unforgivable, in this case I helped to save a life."