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’

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.