Although they often appeared cuddly and quite mild-mannered in Disney films, raccoons have been on a tirade in the Washington area recently, tearing up lawns and gardens, digging into garbage cans and eating goldfish out of backyard pools, local animal officials report.

This is the worst year yet for raccoon problems, officials said, particularly in upper Northwest Washington and the suburbs, where the situation is causing increasing alarm.

"They're everywhere . . . chimneys, attics, porch roofs, basements, you name it," said Stuart Shifrin of the Montgomery County Humane Society, which has been averaging 90 to 100 complaints a week.

The main reason for the increased number of raccoons in the area is the fact that the animals have adjusted so well to living in an urban environment apparently overpopulated the few, according to Shifrin. They have wooded areas left in the metropolitan area and an increasing number of them are now attempting to settle in private homes, Shifrin said.

"They live perfectly well with man, but man doesn't always live perfectly well with them," he added.

Although most residents are dealing with the situation by flooding the local animal control agencies with phone calls, some have bought Humane Society traps in order to curtail unannounced visits from the animals, who most of the time arrive at night.

Sen. Howard Baker and his wife have taken to leaving cat food outside their Northwest Washington home as a means of enticing the creatures to stay outdoors.

The raccoons show up more frequently this time of year because they are delivering their young and are likely to need shelter.

But there are ways to deter them, animal experts say, like leaving ammonia-soaked rags, or moth balls around the areas of the house where they are likely to enter, and by keeping garbage cans covered.

Shifrin suggests that home-owners could prevent them from entering by way of the chimney by purchasing a wire screen for the chimney top.

Described as curious, intelligent animals "who like to play," raccoons are usually harmless, except when threatened.

"It probably won't try to approach you or attack you. It will probably just look at you and wonder why you're there," a spokesman from the D.C. Humane Society said. "I wouldn't try to go up to it or kick it."

Animal experts recommend against keeping the raccoons as pets because it is hard to tame them and "you never know what they're going to do," one Humane Society official said.

All local animal control units make house calls to catch raccoons. They then let them loose in the far corners of Rock Creek Park or some other wooded area away from any residences - and hope the raccoons will stay there.