A pseudo-goat, that is, and only for six days, but still closer than most of us will ever become — or ever want to become. Funded by a big chunk of grant money, the British researcher — who describes himself as “a designer (of a more speculative sort), interested in technology, science, futures research” — suited up in a custom-made exoskeleton, ate grass and roamed on all fours with a herd in the Swiss Alps. The idea was “an exploration of how close modern technology can take us to fulfilling an ancient human dream: to take on characteristics from other animals,” he wrote on his website.
Thwaites describes the experience over more than 200 pages in a new book, “GoatMan: How I Took a Holiday from Being Human.” (The chapter titles: Soul, Mind, Body, Guts, Goat Life.) This week, he answered a few questions by email about his life as a ruminant.
Let’s start with the obvious question: Why did you decide to try living as a goat?
I was dog-sitting my nieces’ dog while in this melancholic slump, and the dog was just oblivious. Totally fine, happy, in the moment, no worries. And I had that thought: “You’re so lucky! I wish I could be you for a bit.” It’s a thought I remember having when I was a child, too: “If only I was the pet cat, then I wouldn’t have to trudge off to school in the cold.”
Why a goat and not, say, a lion or a snail or a condor?
I actually started out by trying to become an elephant. But then I actually went to see some elephants, in the wild and in zoos, and found that they’re such emotionally complex and intelligent animals. They seem to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder when one of their family is killed by poachers or in a cull, and when kept in confinement in zoos they often become mad. (Being an elephant keeper is one of the most dangerous jobs in the United States.) They are, I decided, almost too human. I went to visit a shaman [in Copenhagen], and she told me I should try and become a goat. I think she was quite right.
Tell us about your goat suit.
I made the back legs and other pieces, but the front legs were made by Dr. Glyn Heath at a prosthetics clinic at the University of Salford, in England. He usually makes prosthetics for amputees and other people with body disabilities, but he agreed to make me some front legs because he’d started out as a zoologist. The front legs use the same materials and parts as used in prosthetic legs and are extremely robust, as I needed to use them in my attempt to cross the Alps as a goat. The back legs use parts from jumping stilts, as I was trying to make them springy enough so I could gallop along, completely free — the dream! But impossible.
Did you really eat only grass, and will you ever eat grass again?
I ate quite a lot of grass, from the pasture, but mammals don’t produce the enzyme that digests the cellulose in grass. Goats and other ruminants have a rumen, which is filled with microorganisms (bacteria, fungi, etc.) that can break down grass. Then the goat actually digests the microorganisms. So it’s a bit like goats have an internal farm. I tried to make an external artificial rumen by getting a sample of the microorganisms from inside a goat. But the scientists I visited who actually use artificial rumens in their research strongly warned me that I shouldn’t eat the product of an artificial rumen, in case I caught a long-term, incurable gut infection. So in the Alps, I had to use a pressure cooker at night to cook the grass I’d chewed up during the day, and spat into my not-quite artificial rumen. I was getting some energy/nutrition from the grass, but definitely not enough to survive on, so I had to resort to eating other food as well — especially as the whole thing was physically far harder than I expected!
What about the other bodily needs — sleeping, relieving yourself? How did you do those?
I slept in the barn with the goats, but on a bit above the actual goat floor. The temperature outside at night outside was below freezing.
Did you find your herd, or did it find you?
I’d arranged to stay with a goatherd who initially was kind of skeptical, because although I’d arranged to stay, I’d been nervous of actually saying I wanted to eat and live and sleep with his goats. (I was worried some of my meaning might get lost in Google Translate!) Once I’d explained what the project was about, he was intrigued. But he said that unfortunately at dawn the next morning he was herding the goats down the mountain to the valley pastures, where they would spend the winter. He was extremely skeptical that I would be able to keep up with the goats going down the mountain, but I could try. The next morning was one of the most terrifying of my life, stumbling around on four legs trying to keep up with a herd of excited goats, who just flowed down these rocky slopes like a river.
How did the other goats treat you?
I think I made friends with a particular goat. We seemed to follow each other around as we grazed. There was a moment, though, where I looked up and saw I was in the middle of the herd, and everyone else had stopped chewing and was staring at me. It was like I’d inadvertently committed some sort of goat faux pas. Their horns suddenly looked pretty sharp. This was a scary moment, really. But then, a single goat, my goat friend I think, walked right through the center of the silent staring herd and sort of diffused the tension, and we all moved off along the hill together. When I was leaving, the goatherd said that he thought that the herd had accepted me into their social group.
Is life better as a goat or as a human?
Humans: Dissatisfied unless they’ve got the latest gizmo/admiration of their peers; have to worry about money, love, success, injustice, everything and nothing.
Goats: Satisfied as long as they’ve got some nice fresh green grass; only have to worry about trolls under bridges.