"The Owl and the Pussy-cat went to sea
In a beautiful pea green boat . . .
They dined on mince, and slices of quince,
Which they ate with a runcible spoon."
There seems to be a cat-lover in Newell, South Dakota, who isn't familiar with Edward Lear. Or maybe the place is simply fresh out of quince.
It seems that the town has had a problem with an over-abundance of feral cats. For small-town law enforcement, dealing with stray animals comes with the territory. This is not necessarily a trivial task in western South Dakota, where every now and then a wandering feline turns out to be a mountain lion. Still, complaints about stray cats probably aren't a top priority for the sheriff's office.
The priority may have moved a little higher in recent weeks though, when apparently an unusually high number of Newell's feral cats were disappearing. The authorities tend to get nervous about the idea of citizens randomly dispatching strays with .22's or BB guns within the city limits. Perhaps the sheriff's officers were even concerned about the slight possibility that somebody might be killing cats for twisted and gruesome reasons.
Somebody was killing cats, all right. Very dark and early one recent morning, the sheriff caught the perp red-handed.
Er—make that red-clawed. A great horned owl swooped down from a tree, grabbed a Siamese cat, and proceeded to have it for breakfast. There was no word on whether it used a runcible spoon.
"Runcible," by the way, is a nonsense word invented by Edward Lear. A couple of sources describe it as a spoon with short tines on the end, what we now call a "spork." A couple of other sources maintain, from the way he used the word in a couple of other stories and from one of his own drawings, that Lear simply used it to mean "gigantic." The latter meaning seems more logical, and also makes a runcible spoon an appropriate utensil for any bird big enough to routinely capture and munch on full-grown cats.
But the plot thickens. For one thing, the owl caught with its Siamese take-out wasn't working alone. Two of the birds have been seen in town. Second, catching them in the act doesn't mean the sheriff's office can do anything to protect the innocent cats of Newell. Great horned owls are a federally protected species, and it's illegal to harm them.
This could be a real problem. The owls, which can grow up to two feet tall with a wing span of 60 inches, are powerful predators. They eat practically anything, from rodents to skunks and even porcupines. A small town with plenty of cats gives them a handy all-you-can-eat buffet, and they probably can't taste the difference between a stray cat and someone's much-loved pet.
This raises an interesting question. What exactly would the federal authorities consider "harm"? Would someone be prosecuted for sending a pair of great horned owls down the mighty Missouri in a pea-green boat? Surely not, as long as they were supplied with plenty of quince and a couple of runcible spoons.