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Private pets



This winter, I purchased a home-entertainment system for my cats—or, more succinctly, an aquarium. The youngest feline stays within near-constant view of the tank, tripping over his polydactyl paws as he practices predation. The oldest occasionally issues the Cory catfish, tuxedo guppies and neon tetra a dismissive flick of the tail, but I catch his eyes tracking. The dogs sense the cats' curiosity and trot in circles around the couch. The whole has become its own animal soap opera. But my most interesting pets live in a closet, tucked far away from this interspecies drama.

The worms live in a small box in the broom closet. There are thousands of them, though they contribute nothing to the household theater. While other pets sneak snacks as trashcans and turned backs allow, the worms are dedicated disposers. I plunk stale chips, avocado pits and forgotten leftovers right into their box, and quietly, without fanfare, the worms go to work. After just a few months, the colony of Eisenia fetida transform food scraps and yard clippings into rich, brown compost made of "castings," which is a fancy word for worm feces. This process is called vermicomposting.

Within their plastic box, they slither just beneath a bin of dog biscuits, the ones that entice my hounds—on the rare occasion that they do something right—to demand congratulations. The biscuits illustrate the sad truth about most pets: Even when they're behaving, they still take a lot of work. By comparison, establishing a sizable worm colony is easier than taking out the trash.

The colony is happiest in a small container—any Rubbermaid will do—filled with a mixture of newspaper, coffee grounds, tissue and water. Drill a few holes in the box, add the redworms, and you've got a living, breathing compost pile that can devour up to half its weight in food each day. For a small box like mine, that means three-and-a-half pounds per week. The small footprint makes it a favorite among apartment dwellers and those who prefer not to compost in the snow and the rain. The resulting fertilizer trounces traditional compost, with up to 11 times more nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium than what you would already find in your garden.

I'll keep feeding my fish the specialty wafers formulated for water clarity and scale health. I'll keep grooming my cats and cleaning their litter box, too. I'll keep walking, brushing, feeding, scolding and bathing my dogs. I love them, and it's the right thing to do. I will continue to remind myself of the intrinsic joys of pet ownership, and how the happiness they bring cannot be measured in quantitative ways.

But, sometimes, I wonder what life would be like with two thousand pets hiding in every closet. While the worms may not be as cuddly as my cats or as cute as my canines, if we're judging animals by their household productivity, they're certainly my favorite.

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