By Julia Purdy
Gabby the cat is a licensed medical animal who rides on Matty Oldenshaw’s shoulder and warns him of an impending epileptic seizure. Oldenshaw, a sidewalk musician, can usually be found in downtown Rutland on Wednesdays at the corner of the Walmart parking lot or under the awning of the Yellow Deli on Center Street. On the last Saturday of the month, he can also be found indoors at the Rutland Farmers’ Market on West Street. Oldershaw uses the money he earns entertaining passersby with sidewalk music to the support his partner Kim and their 8-month-old daughter Summer. Gabby helps him do it safely.
Oldershaw will turn 34 this month and is a veteran of the Coast Guard and trained field medic who volunteered for Iraq duty in 2009-2010. He was wounded almost immediately and more recently suffered a severe head injury. He sets up with a guitar case open to receive donations, a cardboard sign that reads “Singing USCG Daddy,” and small dishes of dry cat food and water.
While Oldenshaw sings and strums a wide range of popular tunes, Gabby perches coolly on his shoulder or wraps around his neck like a furry scarf. She only leaves his shoulder to grab a bite or ask to be taken outside to relieve herself.
Gabby recently turned 2 years old on March 26, the same day that his daughter Summer turned 7 months old.
The use of cats as service animals is unusual but growing. In November 2016, Oldershaw told the Mountain Times, a tiny kitty was rescued from a barn fire in Brandon — the only survivor. The fire chief, who knew about Oldershaw’s situation, asked him to take the kitten temporarily so the kitten could learn from Gabby until it could get trained as a medical cat for a local 12-year-old child who had suffered a head injury in a car accident. The little cat, Gru, went on to receive certification in Boulder, Colo., and has since returned to Vermont.
Any animal can be trained to match up to a medical need, said Oldershaw. A prescription comes with the animal, who accompanies the patient at all times. Gabby is registered with the state licensing division.
The cats are trained to be calm under all circumstances and not spook at loud noises or disturbances. The baby can tug and pull at Gabby and she doesn’t react, Oldershaw said.
Oldershaw explained that minutes before she detects an impending seizure, Gabby gives an alert howl and starts nudging his head and face to get his attention. If he ignores her, she will begin to scream. She will stay with him until someone comes to his aid.
“Pills are not going to solve everything,” Oldershaw said. “Animals are like a medicine that you can’t die from or o.d. on.”
Photo by Julia Purdy
Matty Oldenshaw plays the guitar with his service cat who monitors signs for epileptic seizure from his shoulder.