The neighborhood raccoons in the Calvert County community of Chesapeake Ranch Club had eaten their way into the hearts and homes of the residents.

The people came to regard the creatures almost as loyal family pets, who appeared regularly at feeding time. One creature, it is said almost as a matter of family pride, had even learned to ring a doorbell when it wanted a peanut butter sandwich.

Such strong attachments had developed that the sudden disappearance of the raccoons recently has created more than an environmental mystery. It has sparked an emotional crisis.

"We always had plenty of them and we miss them," said Ethel Carlow, a director of the Chesapeake Ranch Club Property Owners Association. "My granddaughter and two foster children used to beg to stay up and watch them at night. They're very upset . . .

"I had a mother with twins disapear last fall," she said. "All of a sudden, all the food was left. I figured maybe they didn't like what I was putting out. I thought they were going to other houses."

But other people began reporting the same phenomenon. Fourteen raccoons who regularly visited Ruth Churchman's second floor deck for feeding "disappeared overnight," she said. "We don't know what's going on."

Concern over the missing raccoons in this weekend and retirement community of 700 homes prompted the Calvert County commissioners last week to ask for an investigation by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

"It's very unusual. I've never received a complaint like this before," said Charles T. Howes Jr., the countybased natural resources officer. "None of it adds up at all."

Some residents have cast a suspicious eye toward trappers since raccoon pelts bring upward of $20 apiece. But the community, with its private security force, seems an unlikely place for trespassing trappers, Howes said.

Residents have ruled out disease because they have not heard any shooting.

All they know is that their raccoons are missing. And increasingly scarce, they say, are ground hogs, albino skunks, squirrels, foxes, opossums and deer.

"It's all the animals," said an alarmed Churchman. "Everyone in the area is talking about it."

Howes has promised a thorough investigation, but he remains somewhat skeptical of the reports. "It's like saying I was in Washington, D.C., last night and there was no one in the whole city," he said. "Impossible." CAPTION: Illustration, no caption, By Bill Perkins - The Washington Post