Like every artist, Kenneth Lipton has always hoped that his work would one day develop a following.
But he never figured on turning a passel of possums into art aficionados with the etchings that he creates at his Sherman Oaks home.
The opossums sneak into Lipton's house through a doggie door to watch him scratch designs on metal plates he uses for his fine-lined, dry-point drawings. The animals have been visiting almost nightly for six months.
"They jump on the table and then go up on the toaster and sit and watch," Lipton said. "It's like they're mesmerized."
Possums, Cats Made Friends
Lipton, a 33-year-old lawyer whose etchings are shown in several galleries, suspects that the opossums are attracted by the faint scratching sound produced when he scrapes sharp-pointed tools across the zinc plates.
"It's a high-pitched squeak," he said of the scratching. "It's a sound level that bothers me. I'm sure it's in a decibel range they hear."
Lipton said the first etching to catch their eye--or ear--was a picture of zebras. During the 93 hours that he spent etching it at his kitchen table, three opossums came to look upon his Vesper Avenue house as home, he said.
Each possum became friendly with his two pet cats--even to the point of sharing their kibble bowl with them, he said.
"At first, I tried to chase them out," he said. "They play dead if you come after them with a broom. They won't leave.
"Now, I just leave them alone. What can I do? I have to leave the doggie door open for the cats."
Lipton's neighbors say opossums are a familiar sight on their block, even though it is only a few hundred yards from Sherman Oaks' busiest Ventura Boulevard commercial district. They say they welcome the ugly, rat-like marsupials on their street, although not in their homes.
"I like them. It's nice to have a little country in the city here," said Linda Lozes, who once rescued a baby possum from her dog.
Jim Hammel, who has lived 15 years on the block, said opossums troop through his backyard "every night about 9.
"I love it. It adds character and charm to the neighborhood," Hammel said.
Donald Hiltz, a 30-year resident of Vesper Avenue, said the animals stroll around his yard in broad daylight. He said he is vigilant to keep the possums from upsetting his dog.
Stephen Ambrosini, who has seen opossums sitting on a toaster on Lipton's kitchen counter, said the creatures seem to be everywhere.
"I've got a family of them living under my house," said Ambrosini, who moved to Vesper Avenue in February. "At first I was worried that they might chew through the wires or something. But the neighbors said they were basically harmless."
Animal experts say that is generally true. But they discourage homeowners from trying to domesticate opossums.
"It's not a good idea for opossums to become dependent on people for their food," said Lt. Robert Pena, a senior animal control officer at Los Angeles' East Valley animal shelter.
"If a person moves or stops feeding them, they might have a difficult time reverting back to their old ways. Young ones might never get used to foraging for food on their own."
Besides, Pena said, possums can carry rabies and a type of typhus that can be transmitted to humans, although he said he has never heard of that happening in Los Angeles County. Opossums that become neighborhood nuisances are trapped by the city, airlifted to Angeles National Forest and released, he said.
Lipton said he and his neighbors are not interested in evicting their possums, however.
"But I'm thinking about putting a real bright light on the floor next to the little cat's door to scare them off," he said.
"The other night a possum came in and there wasn't any food in the cat bowl. So he opened a cupboard and knocked the box of cat food pouches out. Now that's being a pest."