What does it mean to be human? Are we defined by our capacity for critical thought, or our structured set of priorities? Is our humanity marked by our complex emotions or simply the fact that we stand on two legs all day and cook our food over a fire? Are we “better” than beasts? Is our ability to reason a gift or a burden?
Designer Thomas Thwaites needed a break from the tedium and stressors of being a human. He found himself fantasizing about taking a vacation… from personhood. As strange as the concept sounds, it’s actually something Thwaites explored as a young boy. He recalls thinking, “If only I was the pet cat, then I wouldn’t have to trudge off to school in the cold.”
The idea of taking a holiday from humanity took hold. “An elephant!” he thought. “I’ll become an elephant.” But after a few trips to the zoo, Thwaites found that elephants were too prone to stress, too complex, too angry. In short, they were too much like us. So he visited a shaman (oh, you didn’t expect this story to get weird?) who told him that he should become a goat. So Thwaites dove in, hooves first.
Over a year, the bold adventurer worked tirelessly to create goat-mimicking prosthetics. Then he went off…goating. Capering across the countryside. Now, Thwaites is back on two legs and he’s written a book. Last week, he made time to speak with us about his longing to see the world through the eyes of an animal.
What’s the response been? That’s the obvious first question here.
I think generally there’s been a ton of sort of tabloid, “What the hell is this?” kind of thing, but I guess you would expect that. And then there’s been … You know I’ve had a few nice emails just from random people that have read the book, saying that they liked it. One or two kind of in-depth articles and people who really seem to actually kind of get the book in that it’s sort of about becoming a goat and then it’s also about access to different ideas about what it means to be a human being or an animal. You have these different views of what existence is, et cetera. That’s sort of what I think it’s about anyways.
It’s a really fun, cool idea of just becoming a goat. That’s just a really fun concept.
But then when you expand beyond that, what does that actually mean? And what are you giving up and what are you gaining by doing that? That’s a really fascinating premise.
Yeah. I guess that sort of developed a bit out of necessity because I genuinely just wanted to be able to kind of gallop, you know? I thought that would be lovely. Gallop and eat grass — I just thought that would be great. As it turns out, it was much more difficult…
It can’t be that simple.
Yeah. I kind of thought that it would be at least fairly easy to do a kind of trot, or a canter, or something like that.
So did you go into the idea really just thinking, “I just want to trot. And I want to eat grass. And I want to be a goat”?
Yes. I had this whole thing about becoming an elephant, but it was just sort of like I couldn’t find the right animal, so I was like, “Oh, you know, elephant!” Then the shaman lady, she was pleased after that meeting that she seemed to have found what I wanted to be. Goats, I suppose, they’re sort of everything basically in terms of how quick they are and how free they are. That’s sort of fun. It was those feelings like “Yeah, wouldn’t that be amazing? Wouldn’t it be such a kind of wonderful escape?” That’s where it started.
It’s in the title of the book “taking a vacation from being a human.”
For some reason, probably because I’m quite into science and technology and I read all the technology blogs and all that kind of stuff, the sport of eating grass and at least kind of getting some kind of nutrition from it… I thought, again, wouldn’t be that difficult. You just sort of expect it to have all been worked out somehow. I think I constantly just expect that somewhere someone had kind of basically worked this out.
Eating was a whole hurdle on its own, right?
Yeah. I sort of think … I mean, obviously everything I did I was sort of doing in a very kind of amateur fashion — to the best of my ability.I didn’t want to get long-term gut disease.
[Note: Thwaites came up with a system in which he chewed grass, then spit it into a bag, then later cooked that grass with a pressure cooker and a few chemicals to break it down, then ate it. You have to admit: The man goes all in.]
So did you get any advice going into this? Did anyone … I wouldn’t imagine you had any mentors, but any sort of guiding hands helping you along?
Not really because I guess it was … It sort of seems like there are various different kinds of scientists that I spoke to. Like this kind of anatomist I spoke to at the rural veterinary college, then this neuroscientist, and then the bunch of physiologists. You’ve got biologist up in Wales. And this shaman lady. They’re all sort of looking at the same kind of animal but from very different perspectives. So it sort of depended on which bit I was focusing on. I had a few long email conversations. And going to see people as well. But there was not kind of overall sort of guide.
There was no one holding your hand through the whole thing.
I guess the shaman lady could have been that, but she had other things on her mind at the time. And lived in Copenhagen.
What was the best bit of advice you got before you committed to being a goat?
I think probably the best individual bit of advice was to go and see this shaman, and that just came up from a friend over a couple of pints in the pub when I was relating my tale of the project to become an elephant, but really not wanting to be an elephant anymore. Because it sort of just expanded the project in that it took it from just an exploration of sorts and made me think of the philosophy a bit more, which I liked. So I guess it’s nice to consult different types of expertise. So really think, “Oh yeah, I need some expertise, expert help.”
You kind of automatically think of the traditional kind of categories like doctor, scientists, engineers. I went to see a few biomechanics engineers, but it didn’t even make it into the book (those conversations) because for them … I guess an engineer is so focused on a specific problem that going with this goat kind of thing, it was too big. If I went to ask about the kind of stress index or a piece of foreleg bone or something, they might have been able to help.
How was the transition coming back into your day-to-day life after being a goat for a couple of days?
It was actually kind of pleasurable, really, because it was just like really uncomfortable after the end of that time. I was just smelly, generally sort of hungrier that I would have liked to have been. Sort of tired… Just tired of being cold. The trappings of human life took on a very… I mean I guess that’s kind of like a holiday as well because you go away and then you come back.
Remember what you loved about being on two legs.
Oh yeah. Yeah exactly. “It’s nice to be home” in a way.
Yeah. So with that mentality, would you do it again?
I will say that I still can’t shake the feeling that actually, come on, it shouldn’t be that difficult to gallop. I’ve learned things and kind of remade my back legs already. Because the back legs I went to the Alps with and yeah. I think it wasn’t quite right. And I’ve had lots of emails from (well you know not lots, but like two) goat herders who read about the project on some blogs or something like that and they’ve invited me to come out if I ever wanted to spend time with the herd. That would be nice to go back.
And also, it’s kind of weird because I was doing this project, but at the same time the whole thing was about escape, if you see what I mean. So it was quite difficult. There was my friend taking photos sometimes and that kind of stuff. And worrying about … So I’m kind of planning this summer to go back and just sort of do it for myself a bit.
So it sounds like the second go-around will be more of a goat vacation?
I think so. Maybe in mid-August or something like that, when it’s warmer. Because I have to kind of rest a lot but I also had this idea that I was going to cross the Alps, so it was like I had somewhere to get to. You know, I was never into some kind of endurance test, which is what I think some people expected like “Yeah you need to last this long…”
The further you get into this endurance test kind of mentality, in a way, you’re kind of driving yourself in a way that’s quite human. It was meant to be a holiday. And it kind of was, in places, but it was also kind of painful and the prosthetics were kind of rubbing.
But I think I can make the prosthetics better. I remade the back legs. I think I can probably improve the front legs a bit. You know I still have this dream, with this kind of skeleton, which somehow makes it possible and not painful to not be on four legs. A nice way to see the world, basically.
You kind of made a goat-friend, right? Was that sort of a win? At that point you felt accepted.
I think for me it was definitely a win. You kind of wonder if you’re fooling yourself. But really I would just basically walk off somewhere, to a new patch of grass, and then turn around and there would be this particular goat and then I could follow her to another patch of ground. And we just sort of hung out together much more than any of the other goats.
The moment of acceptance may have been when I was about to get into a bit of a goat fight, because it meant a new goat was being introduced to the herd. Goats are very social, hierarchical animals. They’ve got a pecking order and so a new goat, introduced to the existing social group, has to find its place in the pecking order. There was a moment when that was certainly on the cards. There was just this moment when it was very quiet and it was the first time I’d seen any kind of head tossing. I was kind of surrounded a bit and there was a bit of head tossing from a couple of the goats and it was like … Sort of somehow you can maybe tell that something’s about to go off.
I used the walk-away tactic. Just you know, “walk away.” So I kind of avoided it, or probably delayed it.
So what was your mentality just before it happened? Was there a moment when you were suiting up to go out for the first time and you were like, “Wow this is kind of crazy,” or you were like, “This is actually happening.” How did you feel right before setting out and doing it for the first time?
I didn’t have much time to actually think about it because the first time I put on the goat legs and stuff in the Alps was at 4 a.m. The goat herder had said the night before that they were leaving as soon as the sun comes up — after milking. Herding the whole herd down to the grazing pasture. It was like, “Okay! Here we go!” It was all very sort of exciting. The herd hadn’t been on the move for awhile, so it was like a big herd all traveling together, that sort of thing.
You were just thrown into it.
Yeah exactly. Kind of right into it. Once I left the herd, there were a few times … There were onlookers and stuff like that passing by as I was tromping along on four legs. That was kind of weird.
Make you sort of reacquaint yourself with being human?
Exactly. Snap back a bit.
Are there any parallels you would draw between the goat herd and human society in general? Are there tactics you learned maybe growing up on the playground or whatever that you kind of brought to getting accepted into the herd?
Yeah. I think so. I guess having lived in London a bit and maybe some of the seedier areas of London, you sort of learn a little bit about body language and not kind of looking aggressive but not looking timid. I think that kind of comes into play. That kind of slightly social body language. Certainly when I was a bit nervous of them right in my eye level.
What do you think is the takeaway here?
It has let me develop this methodology of exploring the area between the arts and the sciences. I’ve always been frustrated that schools tend to split these subject areas up. I think they’re both interesting and necessary.
I did get a new perspective on the world though. Being on four legs, amongst a herd, at the same level as everyone else, you really realize that to the goats, they’re the people. They’re goats and we’re non-goat animals if you see what I mean.
What’s the end goal? I mean in becoming a goat and writing books about becoming a goat, what’s the finish line? What are you hoping to achieve?
I think probably the end goal is a sort of … Well probably like a philosophical shift I guess. Which is kind of like an intellectual thing but I think really the end goal is still to sort of gallop and then maybe make it so other people can kind of experience what it might be like. I think it’s kind of too painful at the moment. You can imagine… maybe it’s like a fantasy end goal, but you can imagine some sort of holiday company or something like that. Spin it out. I guess, rather than searching for a different experience in some sort of exotic locale kind of thing, you can search for a different experience as a different animal. That would be the end goal in some years but we’ll see.
The Mad Ones is a reference to a famous quote from Jack Kerouac’s On the Road: “…the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes ‘Awww!’ ”
Watch this series for interviews and profiles with people doing big, wild, bold, creative things with their lives. #TheMadOnes