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Masked and nimble, and as furtive as the archetypal cartoon burglar they inspired, raccoons are prowling Wasatch Front neighborhoods in increasing numbers and becoming serious urban nuisances.

Ask the Holladay woman who opened her chimney flue and had a "besooted" raccoon tumble into the fireplace and then scurry in a panic over her snow-white furniture.Or the Centerville man whose dog lost an argument with a pair of raccoons who refused to share the Alpo.

Or Gene Weller, a nuisance wildlife specialist for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, who responded to more than 200 complaints about raccoons in the Salt Lake area alone during the past summer.

"We've had too many," said Weller, whose major concern is that the raccoons are not native to Utah. "They don't belong here. They should never have been brought here. Ninety percent of the time, the introduction of a non-native species is detrimental."

No one knows for sure who first introduced the animals into Utah, but one theory is that sportsmen set packs of them loose in East Canyon in the 1950s to track them with hunting dogs. Another is that they came in through the pet trade.

Whatever their source, they're here, they're proliferating and they're causing headaches for urban dwellers and animal control officers.

"The volume of calls on raccoons has been steadily growing," said Margy Halpin, urban wildlife specialist for the Division of Wildlife Resources. "The most common is about raccoons nesting in chimneys. They are adapting very well to the urban setting. What's interesting is how fast they have established themselves in Utah."

Chimneys, trees, garbage dumpsters, attics - anyplace that's dark and cozy can be home to raccoons, which are most active at night. They especially congregate along stream corridors and the foothills.

Raccoons are omnivorous and feed on what they find. "Don't leave pet food outdoors, where it is accessible to wild animals," suggested Halpin. And she suggests that chimneys within the raccoons' new territory be capped with screens.

"We advise people to leave them alone," Halpin said. "They shouldn't be thought of as pets."

By nature gentle, raccoons can be dangerous when defending themselves. "If you come upon one, give it space, keep people and pets away from it, give it a chance to escape on its own," Halpin said. "We've never had a report of a raccoon freely attacking a person, but it will attack if cornered."

Also, there have been no cases of rabid raccoons reported in Utah, though the animals have been infected by the disease in other parts of the country.

Because they are a non-native species, raccoons are usually destroyed when caught by wildlife officers, Weller explained.

"Unfortunately, they pose a serious threat to our native species and habitats," Halpin said.

Free brochures on how to handle visits from raccoons are available from the Division of Wildlife Resources.