This story originally appeared in the July/August 2016 issue of mental_floss magazine.
What compelled you to become a goat? I think it was an attempt at self-help. There’s a need to acknowledge your animal side, to counteract the mad human side. I wanted to see how close technology could take us to adopting the characteristics of other animals. Every child’s dream is to experience the world from a different point of view. Name an animal, and it would be brilliant to be it for a week.
At first, you wanted to be an elephant. This started as a design project. (1) I was going to make this huge exoskeleton. I thought it’d be easier to be bigger, but I visited a shaman, and it became clear that the project wasn’t just about designing a cool exoskeleton.
You visited a shaman? Right. Taking the shamanic approach, there’s an innate sense that we’re similar to other animals. Humans aren’t necessarily superior or separate. And in shamanism, the whole reason anybody can “transform” into an animal is because you’ve grown up together. The shaman asked, “Where are you going to get an elephant in the U.K.?” Goats, on the other hand, are everywhere.
So physically, what did the process entail? I had a vague idea: a big powerful exoskeleton with loads of springs and elastic bands. But all of those mechanical joints did not work. That prototype flopped. For the second prototype, I tried to mock up a Paralympic design, with springy legs. I was fine walking up and down in my flat, but it would have never stood up to a trek in the Alps.
Why not? The mechanics of the human body are so subtle. Just stepping off a curb to cross the street is an amazing feat. You don’t realize how much your body is doing until you try to replicate it, making joints and hinges in a workshop. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. I had this dream of galloping, and I had just enough knowledge to think it was possible. Turns out, becoming a goat was more difficult than I thought.
So at this point you visited a biomechanics lab. My grand exoskeleton had to be pared back to a more minimal design. To become a quadruped, I had a group of prosthetists mold me new limbs.
You also visited a neuroscience lab for transcranial magnetic stimulation (2) Essentially, I had my brain zapped for a few seconds to disrupt its language center. That way I couldn’t think about the past or future. (3) It was like when you have your face numbed at the dentist.
And you considered an enema with goat poo? Goats have different bacteria that help them digest their food. I thought if you can get a sample of that bacteria and transplant it inside of you, you would gain the ability to digest like a goat. After more research, I learned that goats have a rumen, an extra organ just before their stomach and intestine. So I made an artificial rumen instead and ended up eating quite a lot of grass. I did have some goat poo ready in my flat that I finally got rid of. My girlfriend was pleased to see that go.
How was eating all that grass? If I had eaten much more, my teeth would have started to lose their enamel. I did get some gut problems, but that happens when you go on holiday somewhere exotic, anyway.
What did you leave out of your final prosthetic design? A nuchal ligament. It’s like a cable running down the back of the neck. I wanted to build one, but the prosthetists didn’t think that was a good idea, because I might not feel the damage I was inflicting on myself. Goats also have a 320-degree field of vision, so I bought a lot of prisms to adapt my vision, as if my eyes were on the side of my head. But it didn’t work out.
The next step was joining a herd, which you did for three days in Switzerland. When a stranger moves to town, you ask, “Blah blah blah, where do you come from?” That happened, but in a goat way. A lot of sniffing.
Did you make any goat lady friends? One goat was sniffing my beard.
Male goats—billy goats—have a beard, and that’s their big, powerful “man smell” area. (4) So, um, yeah, maybe.
Did you start feeling less human? Momentarily, as you’re chomping on grass surrounded by lots of goats, you can forget yourself. I definitely smelled of goat, and you can’t help but feel more goatlike then.
Thomas Thwaites’s second book, GoatMan: How I Took a Holiday From Being Human, published by Princeton Architectural Press, is available in bookstores now.