The man who lived like a goat
Helen Pilcher talks to Thomas Thwaites, who as his alter ego GoatMan spent a week in the Alps living as a goat, earning himself an Ig Nobel prize.
Why did you want to live like an animal?
Humans have been thinking about what it would be like to be an animal for thousands of years. There are cave paintings depicting creatures that are half animal, half human. I wanted to see how close science and technology could take us towards fulfilling this ancient human dream. I wanted to take a holiday from being human and see the world through animal eyes.
Okay, but why a goat?
Goats were one of the earliest species to be domesticated. They’re independent, curious creatures that like climbing. I like climbing, so it seemed like the perfect fit. I also visited a shaman, and she told me to become a goat.
How did you go about ‘becoming’ goat?
I wanted a costume that would make me move and feel like a goat, so I had a set of four prosthetic limbs made. They were made from fibreglass, carbon fibre and rubber, and had joints that could lock and move. They were designed to put 60 per cent of my weight on my front legs, just like a goat. I found I could trot on a flat surface, but it was terrifying going down steep slopes.
Any other preparation?
A scientist told me that goats have no episodic memory, that they live in the here and now. After that, I approached a neuroscientist who refused to meddle with my memory, but did use transcranial magnetic stimulation to temporarily interfere with the Broca’s area of my brain. It made it hard to get my words out. It was a weird sensation.
What did you eat?
My goal was to just eat grass, so I wore an artificial rumen, the stomach-like bag used by ruminants to partially digest their food. I’d pick grass with my mouth, chew it then spit it into the silicon bag where it would ferment. Then I’d suck some out through a straw.
Mmmmm… and how did you find ‘cud’?
I couldn’t eat enough to keep me going, so I had to eat the odd Mars bar from my friend’s outstretched hand.
What was it like living with goats?
It was a visceral experience. At first they were nervous of me, but then they got curious and came up and started sniffing my beard. I slept in the shed with them at night and hung out with them in the fields during the day. After a few days, the goatherd said he thought they’d accepted me as one of their own, and gave me an honorary goat bell.
Did you make any new friends?
Yes. I noticed I was hanging out with one goat more than the others. We followed each other round. It was nice.
I learned that the way we perceive the world is both fixed and flexible. Fixed, because we have certain associations we can’t unlearn. For example, I still perceived a chair as an object for sitting on, even though I was dressed as a goat. Flexible, because some things do change. When I strapped on four legs, I couldn’t use my hands, so my mouth became my interface with the world. I started to adjust how I thought about myself and started to act like an animal.
GoatMan: How I Took a Holiday From Being Human by Thomas Thwaites is out now (£14.99, Princeton Architectural Press).