Whither slithered 1 million worms? Court to rule

A couple who run a retirement home in a village in the Eiffel hills are going to the highest court in the land in their struggle to win compensation from the city of Cologne for the loss of 1 million earthworms. ``These aren't just ordinary worms,'' says Luzie Wilms. ``These are eusenia foetida, imported from Chile because they are the best for composting organic wastes.''

Paul and Luzie Wilms, and half a dozen pensioners living in an old cloister they operate as a home for retired persons in the village of Stadtkyll, got into the worm business about seven years ago.

They formed an ``Active Pensioners Club of the People's Movement for Common Sense and Responsibility'' to import the original stock of eusenia foetida worms from Chile.

``A couple of years later, the Cologne City Gardening Office borrowed three cubic meters of our earth containing about 1 million of our worms,'' Mrs. Wilms recalls. ``Cologne authorities wanted to determine whether the worms could compost all the grass cuttings and dead flowers and fallen leaves from the city's gardens. Until then, the stuff had been simply buried.

``A year later, Cologne brought us back three cubic meters of earth.

``These three cubic meters should have contained 20 million worms -- they multiply rapidly -- but instead, they contained not a worm.''

That's when the active pensioners club sued the city of Cologne for about $180,000 to compensate for the loss of 1 million eusenia foetida worms.

Cologne countered with an offer to settle out of court by giving each club member a free ticket to the municipal zoo.

Mrs. Wilms, who is owner of Record of the Worms, rejected the offer. She has lost the first round, appealed and lost again, and says she now is going to the Federal Supreme Court in Karlsruhe.

``I've got legal protection insurance, and the insurance company is sure we can win,'' Mrs. Wilms says.

In the meantime, her group continues to raise eusenia foetida, feeding them on waste collected a trailer load a week from Cologne's wholesale fruit and vegetable market.

``We are feeding them some of the European Community's surplus,'' she says. ``And we sell a lot of worms, to organic gardeners and others who want to compost organic waste.''

Saudi Arabia has shown an interest, she says, ``but of course it would need a shipload of worms.''

``We also get a number of calls from fishermen,'' she adds, ``but we turn them away -- these are not worms for fishing.''

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