Four legs good … kind of
Disillusioned with life, Thomas Thwaites needed a change. So he became ... a goat. Damian Whitworth meets the author known as ‘GoatMan’
When a man walks into a field full of goats in Kent, the goats do not panic like sheep and bolt. The goats assess the interloper briefly then approach purposefully, using their mouths to explore his coat, his notebook and his pockets.
When another man enters the field on all fours, however, wearing strange, springy prosthetics strapped to his legs and firmer, hoof-like attachments on his arms, they don’t make friends quite so quickly. They stand perfectly still and stare at this odd quadruped.
Slowly, cautiously, they approach. A few bolder animals close in, then skitter away. Eventually, one is overcome by a need to discover what this intruder might have in his pockets and gently butts his thigh. Another lowers its head against his cycle helmet. The man smiles in delight at this hint that he is being accepted by the herd. His name is Thomas Thwaites and he wants to be a goat.
These are interesting times for those conducting reconnaissance of the wild frontiers of trans-speciesism. There have been reports of a woman in Norway who thinks she’s a cat and an American student who claims that he, in that dread phrase, self-identifies as a penguin. For his book Being a Beast, published earlier this year, Charles Foster ate worms, slept in a homemade badger’s den and encouraged his kids to sniff each other’s dung as he tried to experience life as a badger, a fox, an otter, a deer and a swift.
Thwaites went to even more extraordinary lengths to transform himself into Billy Goat Gruff. Three years ago, when he was 32, things weren’t going as well as he had hoped. A highly educated freelance designer, he had achieved success with The Toaster Project, a book about building a toaster from scratch and an accompanying exhibition that was bought by the Victoria and Albert Museum.
He feared, however, he had peaked and was in decline. He lacked a “real” job, effectively lived with his father and had no means of clambering on to the London property ladder. He and his girlfriend had rowed the night before and that morning he had been turned down for a bank account. His self-esteem was “sunk”.
He found himself looking at his niece’s dog, Noggin, envying his worry-free existence. He asked himself, “Wouldn’t it be nice to be an animal just for a bit?”, and decided to take a holiday from being human.
The Wellcome Trust’s arts awards program gave him some money to try to become an ele- phant. He quickly concluded he would need to build himself an exoskeleton bigger than a family car. There was also worrying evidence that elephants might be aware of their mortality and be prone to sadness, even depression. On a trip to Denmark he visited a shaman who suggested an elephant was too alien an animal for an En- glishman and he should focus instead on transforming himself into a goat. He was inspired.
Thwaites was certainly imaginative in his quest to become a goat, but early successes were few. He explored using transcranial magnetic stimulation to inhibit those areas of his brain that are different from a goat’s, but was told he should come back in 50 years when the technology might have advanced sufficiently to help.
He tried to create an artificial rumen from silicone so he could digest the cellulose in plant matter. When he ordered some cellulase enzyme, which he hoped to use to break down cellulose into nourishing sugars, the worried supplier contacted the Wellcome Trust. The trust said it was alarmed he was endangering his safety. It also asked why he was now trying to be a goat and not an elephant. Eventually, it agreed to let him continue as long as he promised not to consume the cellulase.
He had more joy with the prosthetic limbs. Designers created back ankle-foot orthotics that look like Paralympic blades and solid front “legs” to strap to his arms. Thus equipped he set off for a goat farm in the Swiss Alps, sleeping above the herd in the hayloft of a barn. He roamed the pastures on his artificial limbs, wearing a waterproof body suit and a bicycle helmet (he never managed to create horns).
Thwaites discovered quickly that walking downhill in his prosthetics was hard. He lets me have a go on his limbs at the Buttercups goat sanctuary in Kent. I find them so painful I have to tear them off after five minutes.
“My trouble is that I am a bit of a fantasist,” says Thwaites. “When I set out I thought it would be so nice to be able to jump off a ledge. I was hoping to be able to gallop and trot. You think it shouldn’t be that difficult. There are videos on YouTube of amazing four-legged robots that are running along, but the reality is your body isn’t made of metal and if you fall over, especially if you are on a mountain, it is actually desperately serious.”
The original plan was to cross the Alps into Italy. That didn’t quite happen. He clattered up
Thomas Thwaites as a goat, above, and a human, right