Meet the man who ‘took a break’ from humanity

Get your goat: Thwaites trained with ‘an expert in animal locomotion’. © Tim Bowditch

Life can be hard, and one day Thomas Thwaites was at ‘a bit of a low ebb’. His solution? To leave the human world behind and live in the mountains with a herd of goats. What is the appeal?

It is September 2014, and Thomas Thwaites is living as a goat. He is wearing prosthetic limbs to walk on all-fours, a helmet in case he falls, and a raincoat ‘from his mum’. But he has climbed too high above the herd. It is a symbol of dominance — a ‘goat faux-pas’.

‘All the other goats were looking at me,’ he recalls later. ‘It was in that moment when I thought, those horns look quite sharp’. Luckily, he had befriended one of them — and just as he began to feel scared, it ‘diffused the situation’. This, said a nearby farmer, was when the goats accepted Thomas as one of their own.

In total, he spent three days with the herd and three more living as a goat by himself. In April he will publish a book about his experience, called GoatMan: How I took a holiday from being human. So what on earth possessed him to take such a bizarre vacation?

Being human is often hard, he explained yesterday. He wanted to escape the ‘pain and worry of being a self-conscious being.’ One day, while dogsitting for his niece, he was struck by a sudden thought. ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to have a break from all this stress?’ It was no passing whim. He won an arts grant from the Wellcome Trust, spent months studying the physical and cognitive behaviours of goats, and attempted to create an artificial rumen — part of a goat’s stomach — so that he could digest grass.

In all, he said, he would recommend his life as a goat. And is it really so strange? Isn’t it a universal feeling to see a bird in flight, or a lazy cat, and yearn for a simpler life?

Thomas is not alone in taking his yearning to its extreme. The naturalist Charles Foster has spent ‘most of his 53 years’ trying to live as an animal; he has spent time as a badger, an urban fox and a red deer. ‘In living the life we normally live, we are living a life that isn’t natural,’ he explained.

Animal magic

From the hybrids of ancient cave paintings to Greek centaurs to Marvel’s Spider-Man, humans have always wondered about the lines between themselves and other animals. Perhaps, say some, this is because we think that being closer to the natural world will make us happier, stronger, even wiser. Life as an animal appeals to us because it is somehow purer than the everyday complications of humanity.

Nonsense, say others. Humans may be more complex, but simplicity does not guarantee happiness — most animals live short and brutal lives. Humans, meanwhile, experience a far deeper range of positive emotions, such as pride and wonder. Even living with animals is a choice made with a rational mind that has weighed up the other options available. Choose to live with goats if you like; but the satisfaction it brings you is human.

You Decide

  1. If you could be any animal, what would you be?
  2. Do animals lead happier lives than humans?

Activities

  1. Choose an animal. Design the technology you would need — like Thomas’s prosthetics — to live alongside its kind.
  2. Write a diary entry which imagines what it would be like to live with your chosen animal for three days.

Some People Say...

“Humans and animals should have equal rights.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Um. This is weird.
It’s not normal — but then Thwaites has made a career of pursuing unusual ideas which investigate why humans do the things they do. For example, for his previous book, he spent nine months building a toaster from scratch, including mining the raw materials himself. It is highly irrational, he concluded, that humanity goes to so much effort just to heat bread.
So does he think we should all live as goats?
Probably not. It’s cold, for one thing. And we weren’t really designed for eating grass. Also, of course, you have to go to school. But it’s always worth taking a step back and looking at our lives from a new perspective. Do we really appreciate what we have? Do the things we worry about really matter? Can we learn something from the animals outside our windows?

Word Watch

Prosthetic limbs
The prosthetics were commissioned from Dr Glyn Heath, a former zoologist in Salford. Thwaites said they were painful to wear, and that it was much easier to climb up the hill than down — which is how he got himself into a sticky situation with the herd.
Wellcome Trust
A charitable foundation which funds health research around the world. It was established by Sir Henry Wellcome, a collector and businessman who spent his life funding medical research.
Rumen
The stomachs of ruminant animals such as sheep and cattle are split into four compartments. The rumen is the compartment which digests cellulose, a common carbohydrate in plants.
Hybrids
Paintings of human-animal hybrids are found throughout paleolithic societies. The Vinca culture (found in central Europe and dated around 5700–4500 BCE) is particularly known for depicting the ‘bird goddess’, a female body with a bird’s head.
Greek centaurs
Half-human, half-horse, centaurs are just one of many hybrids found in Greek mythology. Although most were wild, the centaur Chiron is described as a wise and modest healer.

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.