AMERICAN DAYS: The great suburban sinner who has gone to ground is Invisible beast burdened with all suburban sins

Whenever you go visiting in the salubrious suburbs of an American town or city, your hosts - town or countryfolk, it makes no difference - will sooner or later look out of the kitchen window into the seemingly endless garden, and complain about "the raccoons". They are almost always in the plural, and so are the charges levelled against them.

They ruin the garden, scrape the tree-trunks, hole the fence, pinch food off the bird-table, frighten away the song-birds, devastate the wastebins, and - worst of all - expect the already put-upon resident to clear up after them.

This predictable recital leaves me with a dilemma, for I have long harboured a city-dweller's fondness for the raccoon. This un-American attitude goes back many years to a set of newspaper photographs that showed one of these furry creatures, paws splayed, ringed tail extended, masked face tilted upwards, jumping from a burning house. The raccoon pondered his course of action, leapt, fell, and finally made a safe landing, a couple of dozen feet lower than where he started.

Ever since I have been a closet devotee and have acquired, almost without intending to, a small fund of raccooniana: a photo here, a drawing or postcard there, a couple of wooden ones, a passingly realistic stuffed toy.

As the years have passed, however, I have been forced to the sad, but inescapable realisation that these endearing but villainous animals are just another component of the American myth. They belong right up there with motherhood, apple-pie and the yellow-brick road.

The truth is that they do not exist. And those who say they do are merely victims of the great US government conspiracy to make Americans feel better about themselves. I know this, because, despite all these years of devotion to the raccoon, I have never actually seen one.

In many visits to many different states, I have been stationed at other people's kitchen windows in the pitch dark, transported to town rubbish tips at dusk and made forays from state park lodges in the early hours, all in the hope of seeing a raccoon. "You're bound to see dozens," people say encouragingly, baffled as much by my desire to see one as by my repeatedly failure.

Most recently, in a last-ditch attempt to disprove the conspiracy, I went to West Virginia's state nature reserve where specimens of indigenous wildlife are kept in semi-captivity to inform and delight the visiting public. Sure enough, the only enclosure to betray not a hint of its advertised occupant was the one labelled "raccoon". The far rarer grey wolf and black bear made an appearance.

But, you object, there are raccoons all over the roads in varying stages of decay after unfortunate encounters with traffic. Don't you believe it. What are all those state troopers doing at the side of country roads if they are not waiting to strew around pseudo-raccoons out of sight of unsuspecting motorists? They are certainly not pulling over lorries for speeding.

Long ago, perhaps, a "dead" raccoon might have warned drivers about the risks of speed and the damage cars do to nature. Now, though, the troopers have so overdone their strewing that no one takes any notice. At rubbish tips, raccoons are the lax city authorities' irrefutable excuse for the unhygienic disorder that prevails.

And to my suburban hosts who complain about "the raccoons"? I'm sorry, but you must look closer to home. These mythical animals are taking the blame for indulgences shown to your cats, your dogs, your children - and for your own carelessness when taking out the trash. "The raccoons" are just the amateurishly wicked alter ego of your average American who is not always quite so orderly, clean or law-abiding as Uncle Sam expects.

If I see a raccoon, I'll let you know. But I am not counting on it any time soon.

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