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A ringtail climbs on top of a shelf at Union Creek Resort. Photo courtesy of Jamie Geraty

Ringtail burglar targets Union Creek Resort

Union Creek Resort is the target of a strangely brazen, daytime, serial thief that might already have been prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law if it wasn't so darn cute.

A rarely seen ringtail with a particular sweet tooth has been entering the resort store by day and night since late last week, helping itself regularly to some of the oddest of confections.

"Huckleberry Chapstick and huckleberry licorice," store clerk Jamie Geraty says. "Those seem to be its two favorites. But he did eat some Swedish Fish last night."

An odd little member of the raccoon family that looks like it fell straight out of a Dr. Seuss book, the ringtail first showed up at the store on Highway 62 Thursday morning, entering through a hole in the front wall left by the removal of a light fixture.

"He just poked his head in and looked around," Geraty says.

At first the cat-like face of the nocturnal hunter was a bit of a mystery, and it wasn't until the next day when it hopped along a display cabinet that Geraty spied the mammal's signature gray tail sporting eight distinct black rings.

Ringtails grow to almost 2 feet long and 6 inches high, with big eyes and the body of a tan cat with what appears to be a large raccoon tail stapled to its rear. Hence the common colloquial name ringtail cat.

Their scientific name, Bassariscus astutus, means "clever little fox," but they are also known as miner's cats because early Western miners used to train them to catch mice around their cabins, according to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife's 1987 publication "Oregon Fur-bearing Mammals."

Rarely seen, they are nocturnal omnivores that eat everything from lizards and mice to berries and insects. Southern Oregon represents the northernmost fringe of their known habitat. They are listed as a state "sensitive species," meaning they cannot be trapped for their fur or hunted statewide.

Ringtails are agile climbers and prefer living in steep, rough habitat. Their ankle joints are flexible and able to rotate more than 180 degrees, and their tails not only provide stability when climbing but also allow them to reverse direction by performing cartwheels.

The Union Creek ringtail has performed a decidedly less acrobatic floor show, yet it does so on a regular basis, even in front of some delighted customers.

"Everybody who's seen him loves him," Geraty says. "He ran around Saturday afternoon for a while and hid behind the hats and clothes when he knew we were looking at him.

"We see it all day long, but it definitely comes in at night and knocks things over," Geraty says.

The huckleberry lip balm and licorice are in the store because huckleberries are a popular part of the local flora and a sales schtick for the resort and Beckie's Cafe across Highway 62.

"Of all the things he's going for, it's the Chapstick," ODFW wildlife biologist Rosemary Stussy says. "Who knows what an animal thinks?"

But this ringtail's days of five-toed discount are numbered.

Resort workers plan to take away the ringtail's access point, once they know the coast is clear.

"We don't want to close the hole until we know it's outta here," employee Lori Mattie says.

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@mailtribune.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.

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