Designer Thomas Thwaites has gotten a lot of attention in the past last year. No wonder, since he spent a week living as a goat.
The idea came from the possibility of taking a vacation from all the anxiety and stress that comes with being a human. Since humans are the only animals who experience existential angst, Thwaites decided he might as well switch species. A friend tipped him off to a Danish shaman who convinced him that he should «become» a goat.
«This is an age-old human longing, to see life from an animal perspective. My project became how to research this with the help of modern technology and science,» said Thwaites enthusiastically. He submitted his idea to The Wellcome Trust, a British research foundation, and they covered the expenses.
Not trying to get anyone’s goat
He took the next year to learn about the latest in goat research. Despite the project’s apparently trivial topic, he received excellent guidance from the academic community. The ultimate goal was to live as a goat, as authentically as possible: physically, mentally, and gastronomically. During his research, he had help in constructing prosthetics in order to move about the pastures like a goat. The next challenge was the grass diet.
«We humans can’t digest grass, so the solution was to create an artificial stomach,» said Thwaites. He could graze like a normal goat, but after having chewed the grass, he would spit it into his «stomach.» There it was dissolved into a sugary mixture, which he would suck up through a straw and digest normally.
«Grass isn’t so bad, in fact it tastes very good. You learn very quickly what kind of grass tastes the best, even though it all looks the same,» said Thwaites, laughing.
Back to nature
He also spent time observing goats with an ethnobiologist, in order to better understand goat behavior. Thwaites started to see that he could not simply become more goat-like; he also had to shed his most human characteristics.
«I went to a neurologist who introduced me to a technique called ‘transcranial magnetic stimulation.’ Basically, he tried to turn off my ability to speak,» Thwaites explained.
A custom helmet subjected his brain to magnetic radiation that temporarily blocked speech. The physical adjustments were not comfortable. He described the prosthetics as extremely painful, and the helmet caused such powerful spasms in his face that a filling in his tooth exploded. All of this preparation led to a week out to pasture with a herd of goats in Switzerland.
For Thwaites, the best example of his acceptance in the herd was also the most dramatic. The lead buck confronted him, ready to butt heads, until Thwaites showed his submission by withdrawing.
«Goats are social animals, so it was important for me to find my place in the herd. The confrontation was a sign that I had been accepted as a new member of the herd,» Thwaites said.
Monkey see, monkey do
Thwaites is not the first to have tried life as an animal. The veterinarian and philosopher Charles Foster has lived as a badger and otter. Together they received the 2016 Ig Nobel Prize, a satirical take on the Nobel Prizes. The prizes are presented yearly at Harvard, highlighting seemingly absurd research which may also provide valuable insights.
When Thwaites talks about what he sees as the most important results of the project, he comes back to this age-old dream of life as an animal. With today’s research we finally have the possibility to realize it.
«Do you recommend trying to live life as an animal?» this reporter asked.
«Yes! You don’t have to go the whole way, but at least try eating leaves from a tree or some grass without using your hands,» Thwaites said.