Little masked bandits

When I had a house on Ramrod Key in the Florida Keys, raccoons were an occasional feature of life there. They are quite cute to look at, being about the size of a small dog, furry with stick-up ears and a ringed tail. Their most distinctive feature, however, consists of the black patches around the eyes, looking something like a bandit's black mask.

They are quite common among the string of islands that make up the keys, and live close to water. They are very intelligent, and can learn how to unpick locks and open doors. My neighbours used to tell stories of raccoons opening their fridge doors. It's very credible because they have delicate little hands than can grasp and manipulate. My own house was built on 13-foot concrete stilts, so no raccoon could ever break in, but occasionally in a morning I would find their tiny footprints on the car I kept below the house.

The places to see them were at the tip of Big Pine Key, and just across the bridge onto No Name Key. I would drive there with friends just before dark, and wait quietly until nightfall. The raccoons would emerge, curious about us, and perhaps expecting food. They are omnivorous and nocturnal, eating insects, small animals and plants. They also like biscuits, picking up ones dropped in front of them, and even taking them by hand. We had to do this carefully, not wanting to be scratched in case rabies was endemic among the population.

I've read that research has established that they can remember how to perform tasks three years later, and that they are intelligent enough to learn which boxes contain 4 grapes, and which have only 3. They are also likeable, and add much to the local colour.