Busted: Furry masked marauders

Our house in suburban St. Louis stood at the end of a long driveway. On three sides, thin strips of woods almost hid surrounding houses from view during leafy seasons.

Although you could hardly call these wooded areas a forest, they provided habitat for birds and other wild critters. During our seven years there, we saw foxes, groundhogs, porcupines, chipmunks, lots of rabbits and squirrels, and even an occasional deer. But the most remarkable of our furry neighbors showed up in the carport as I drove in one night.

My encyclopedia describes the common raccoon as about 32 inches from nose to tailtip, but this one appeared to be at least that long - not counting the tail - and of almost cartoonishly vivid coloring. At first I thought Ranger Rick had come calling.

He stood upright, resting on his haunches and looking into the headlights, then vanished into the darkness of the back yard.

When I told my family about the visitor, we suspected I'd just seen the culprit who had been rummaging through our garbage. We had believed that our old-fashioned, tall, heavy, galvanized-steel cans with tight-fitting lids to be raccoon-proof. But once I described the size of this particular fellow, we reconsidered.

The boys gathered some bungee cords and secured the lids to the handles on the sides of the garbage cans. Our older son, Tom, assured me that no creature lacking an apposable thumb could remove those lids now.

Problem solved.

Later that night, I awoke to an unusual noise that sounded suspiciously like a garbage can rolling down a hill. I got up and looked outside. In the dim light I could see one of our cans, standing upright, several yards from where we had left it. And next to it was our giant raccoon, using both front paws to fidget with the bungee cord.

I switched on the floodlights, hoping to scare the interloper away without waking the rest of the family. He stood still for several seconds. Then he looked up toward the side yard, where two other raccoons lurked. He seemed to be looking to them for guidance.

Apparently they gave him a thumbless thumbs-up, because the large raccoon went back to his task of trying to release the lid from the can. I watched for a while, certain that he would not succeed. Eventually one of us gave up and went back to bed.

Next morning the can stood victorious, and we saw no further evidence of these titanic critters. (My overactive imagination pictured the three woodland bandits considering their options. "It's gittin' too civilized in these-here parts," says their leader. "Time to move on out west." And they load their loot into a pilfered American Flyer and head for US 40.)

More than a year later, our neighbors to the south took a break from clearing out fallen trees and came over to chat.

As we talked about the woods, the subject of giant raccoons just naturally came up. We learned that, some months earlier, after these neighbors had experienced a rash of petty thefts, the husband had trooped down into the woods and happened upon all their missing items stashed in what he determined to be a raccoons' nest.

(My mind wandered momentarily. What do raccoons do with their booty? I pictured them with a little flea market, selling lawn toys and garden tools to their furry and feathered compatriots - their tiny kiosk set up alongside those run by crows and packrats...)

We told the neighbors of our own experience with the raccoons, remarking that we had not seen them since. "I wonder what became of them?" I mused.

"Oh, I can tell you that," said the neighbor. He said he had resolved to capture the trio and take them to a wildlife refuge. To that end, he'd had a large cage built. After hauling it home, he unloaded the cage, set it beside the car, and went into the house to change into his 'coon-hunting clothes. While inside, he heard an awful scraping noise and ran out in time to see the largest raccoon dragging the cage toward the woods while the other two watched.

"Getting them into the cage was easy!" he told us. As planned, he drove them to the refuge and released them.

Occasionally I've wondered how those little suburban bandits fared out in the wild, so far from the source of their hot merchandise. Perhaps, with the advent of wireless technology, they're trading items on eBay nowadays - thumbs not being absolutely essential for the operation of a computer.

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