Excluding Rocky, the gun-toting hero of the old Beatles song, Bandit may have been the biggest name in the raccoon world. Tipping the scales at 72 pounds, three times normal, this giant made the Guinness record book as the porkiest raccoon of all time.
A regular at Ice Cream World in Walnutport, Pa., Bandit could often be found outside drinking a blueberry slush through a straw. "He was my best friend," said former owner Pepper Klitsch, 48. She still has not come to terms with his death earlier this year.
Attacks on humans by cougars and coyotes make it apparent that problems with urban wildlife are increasing.
Of all the large animal invaders, the raccoon is colonizing man's habitat as well as any. Whip-smart, nearly as skillful with its hands as a safecracker, and curious to the point of walking right into your house, the raccoon is surviving and thriving where others struggle.
Most scientists agree that there are more raccoons in America today than when the Europeans set sail for the New World. More raccoons roam within a mile of his urban campus office "than in 10 square miles of Yosemite," San Jose State biology professor William Murray said.
"This is an animal that is causing a lot of destruction," Murray said. "But very few people have a clear idea what wildlife is anymore. We've lost the ability to make pragmatic decisions" about how to control them.
So many urban raccoons carry a potentially fatal type of roundworm that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has listed it as an "emerging infectious disease" posing an increasing threat to human health. Scientists such as Murray say it is time people stopped thinking of raccoons as cute masked fur balls and started thinking of them as pests.
"Raccoon" is said to come from an Algonquin Indian word, "arakum," which means "He scratches with his hands." Raccoons' ability to manipulate their environment with their hands is one reason humans have tended to anthropomorphize them. Almost two-thirds of the raccoon's somatic sensory cortex is devoted to computing and evaluating information gathered by millions of receptors on the animal's fingers.
Essentially, the raccoon "sees" the world with its hands. That is why the animals can manage amazing feats of dexterity, such as reaching deep into a log for grubs or breaking into basements and chicken coops despite the best efforts of humans to keep them out. Jill Giel, who rehabilitates injured raccoons at the Folsom City Zoo Sanctuary outside Sacramento, said her animals figured out how to use the lock on their cage to keep her out. They stopped when they realized "if they locked me out, their dinner was late."
That superior tactile sense, rather than fastidiousness, explains the other behavior humans find so endearing. "They don't wash their food," said Erik Fritzell, associate dean of Oregon State University in Corvallis. "They put the food in water to enhance the feeling."
In the wild, a raccoon's life can be nasty, brutish and short, rarely reaching 10 years. Besides predation, a major cause of raccoon mortality is canine distemper, which can decimate populations. With human help, they can do much better. Giel said some of her sanctuary animals have lived into their teens.
The diet of city raccoons more closely resembles that of a teenager, said Stanley D. Gehrt, assistant professor of wildlife ecology at Ohio State University. "French fries really get them stirred up. They fight over them. The other thing they like is Dunkin' Donuts."
Bandit was even more of an epicure, favoring such things as chips and cheese. When Klitsch decided he needed to go on a diet, she locked up Bandit's favorite peanut butter snacks behind a sliding bolt. Undeterred, he figured out how to lift the handle and slide the bolt to get at the treats.
Any discussion of raccoons eventually comes around to their intelligence. Just how smart are they? Those who study them often find themselves admiring their resourcefulness, as well as their curiosity. More than one family has noticed raccoons watching them going about their daily routines.
Gehrt said raccoons are deceptive because they all look about the same. "Some have a bad attitude about life. Others are mild-mannered."
The combination of cute and clever has led some people to try to breed raccoons as pets. Some, like Bandit, take to a life of slushes and sleep. Raised around dogs, he even tried to bark like them, Klitsch said.
Most, however, turn wild at about age 2, snarling and baring their teeth.
The raccoon's intelligence can also make it an especially tough opponent for the homeowner who, fed up with seeing the lawn dug up and fish stolen, decides to declare war.
Internet chat groups on raccoon problems are replete with expressions of desperation, admiration and befuddlement. "These critters are really bold," one person writes. "Last week, two huge raccoons decided to duke it out on our back patio," says another. "I swear . . . the raccoons are getting stronger and smarter," adds a poster named Catherine. "I'm about to just give up."