Raccoons will eat just about anything and are clever enough to find their own food — even if it’s up in a tree. (Ann Cameron Siegal)

Raccoons: cute, fascinating animals or destructive, dangerous pests? What do you think?

Raccoons are found everywhere in this country, from deep forests to crowded cities. Samuel Zeveloff, author of “Raccoons: A Natural History,” wrote, “The raccoon is successful largely because it is a generalist,” meaning it adapts easily to changing conditions. And, as an omnivore, a raccoon eats just about anything — plants, small animals, fish and food scraps. (Animals such as pandas are specialists, requiring a specific diet and habitat.)

Clever thieves

Raccoons are extraordinarily clever. A raccoon’s ability to break into almost any enclosed space, whether trash cans, attics or coolers, has earned it the nickname of “masked bandit.” With front paw fingers resembling human hands, raccoons can expertly open jars or door latches.

One trash can manufacturer let raccoons at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History test the security of new products. The raccoons could open every one of them!

Because raccoons seem to be great problem-solvers, some early 20th-century scientists wanted to use them instead of rats for behavioral experiments. The idea was quickly abandoned because the raccoons kept escaping from their cages and stealing lab equipment.

First lady Grace Coolidge took her pet raccoon, named Rebecca, for walks at the White House in the 1920s. (Library of Congress)
Bear-ly related

In the 15th century, Christopher Columbus, not sure what these ring-tailed animals were, referred to them in his journal as “perros” — the Spanish word for dogs. Raccoons have been known by many names, including the Native American Algonquian word “arakunem,” meaning “one who scratches with his hands.”

Biologists long debated whether raccoons were related to bears, dogs or red pandas, but raccoons are scientifically classified as their own species: Procyon lotor, roughly meaning “doglike washer.”

Clean eaters

While their tendency to dip food in water may look like washing, raccoons identify objects by touch. One theory is that water increases the sensitivity of their paws, making such identification easier.

No perfect pet

You’ve probably heard about famous fictional raccoons such as Chester in Audrey Penn’s book “The Kissing Hand,” Meeko in Disney’s movie “Pocahontas” or Ranger Rick, the National Wildlife Federation’s mascot. But did you know that President Calvin Coolidge and his wife, Grace, kept a real raccoon named Rebecca as a pet, often taking her for walks on a leash around the White House grounds?

Today, it’s illegal in Maryland, Virginia and the District to keep raccoons as pets. Cute baby raccoons (kits) can grow up into large, destructive adult raccoons. Let wild animals be wild. Don’t feed or approach them because they can transmit parasites or rabies to humans. And, reconsider leaving your dog’s or cat’s food outside, or your beloved family pet might have an unpleasant encounter with a determined raccoon seeking munchies.

So, are raccoons cuddly-looking, clownlike critters or mischievous intruders?

They’re a bit of both!

For more info, go to animals.
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— Ann Cameron Siegal