A charming woman of close acquaintance recently had a problem: Her basement was invaded by a family of raccoons, a mother and three cute but skittish offspring. My friend did the smart thing. Without touching them, she had them humanely trapped and carted off to a nature center. A subsequent infestation of fleas in the basement was far preferable to that fearsome prospect, rabies.

Which brings us to the troubling case of the cute, cuddlesome raccoon that scampered out of a family's station wagon Sunday at the Reva Park Market, a country store on Rte. 29 between Culpeper and Madison, Va. It willingly approached three Fairfax County residents, licking them as a puppy might.

When the Fairfax countians got home, a relative warned that they may have exposed themselves to rabies, a not-outlandish prospect given the growing number of rabid raccoons being found in our region. The people who were in contact with the animal are now receiving rabies shots.

According to Dr. John Einarson, health director of the five-county Rappahannock-Rapidan Health District in Orange, Va., the people who had the raccoon are being sought. If and when they are found, and if they do not possess a rarely issued permit for possession of the animal, he said the raccoon would be confiscated and "sacrificed"--a shorter, more dramatic word would be "killed"--so tests can be made of its brain tissue.

It's sad, but another reason why people should not harbor animals normally found in the wild.