Have you ever looked at a dog, splayed out on a living room floor, and thought, “That lucky bastard has the best life?”
Who wouldn’t want to sleep all day, interrupted only by eating, runs in the park, and licking your own balls?
But the fantasy is fleeting. You wouldn’t actually want to switch places with your dog. Because you’re not insane, and you realize that the grass is not necessarily greener on the stupider side.
Thomas Thwaites, a conceptual designer from England, wasn’t so convinced. He suspected that animals might be happier, or at least less stressed out, than us humans. So he decided to become one.
He spent three days living and grazing with wild goats in the Swiss Alps. He went to extreme lengths to make his experience as goat-like as possible. He wore special prosthetics that allowed him to walk on all fours, and even consulted with a neurologist about “turning off” the parts of his brain responsible for language and memory.
Why’d he do it? As he explains in his new book, Goat Man: How I Took a Holiday from Being Human—published by Princeton Architectural Press next month—he wanted to “escape the inevitable worries of personhood.”
We called Thwaites to find out if eating grass and living amongst hostile, smelly goats was as stress-free as he imagined.
Let’s start with the big question. You didn’t fuck any goats, did you?
Oh heaven’s no. Goats only mate during certain times of years. So I made sure not to do my experiment during the rutting season.
Did any of the goats at least flirt with you?
C’mon! Who are we going to tell?
There was one particular female goat that I became close to. She kept sniffing at my face, in a weirdly intimate way. There’s a thing that male goats do, where they direct their wee towards their own beards, to increase the power of their smell.
They piss in their own face?
Yes. So I think this female goat was coming over to see if I had the right odor for a male goat.
And she liked what she smelled?
I guess she did. It was a challenge to stay in a goat frame of mind when she got close to me, because her breath, wow, it was something. It was a deep silage smell, like fermenting grass. I really had to dig deep to pretend she didn’t revolt me.
Goats have a reputation for being assholes.
They’re always butting heads and biting each other. They’re just jerks.
It’s the way their social hierarchy works. If you’re lower on the pecking order and snacking on a particularly nice patch of grass, a more dominant goat might come over and butt you out of the way. It can get aggressive.
Did you get in any fights?
There was one moment where I was like, “Oh shit. I’m in trouble.” Everyone in the herd had stopped chewing and they were looking at me with this palatable tension.
What happened? Were you eating somebody else’s grass?
I have no idea. And at that moment, I was acutely aware that I don’t have horns. If I were going to be challenged to some sort of goat standoff, I’d definitely lose. But I had to do something. I had to prove that I belonged in the herd. It was like that classic thing they tell you about prison.
Don’t drop the soap?
You have to prove yourself right away. If somebody attacks you, you fight back. Prove you’re a loose canon.
You don’t want to end up a goat’s bitch.
Exactly. This moment is going to influence the rest of your time. Luckily it didn’t come to a fight. I don’t really know why.
This experiment was about freeing yourself from worry. Did it work? Were you happier as a goat?
I think I was. I mean, on some level, it was a disappointment. I began with this fantasy of what it might be like to be a goat. Just galloping along in endless fields, not a care in the world. But then you’re out there in a herd of goats, and it’s raining and you’re shivering from hunger and the cold, and being on four legs all the time is actually quite painful.
It sounds stressful. The opposite of what you were going for.
It was awful. But there were moments when I felt truly relaxed and happy, like when we were grazing.
You ate grass?
Oh yes. I spent quite a lot of time trying to make an artificial ruminant, so I could digest and metabolize grass like a goat.
How does grass taste?
Weirdly interesting. I very quickly learned that amongst a field of grass, there are good bits of grass and bad bits of grass. Some grass patches will be sweet and fairly powerful, and then some will be bitter and disgusting.
How did that free you from worry?
There’s something calming about eating without using your hands. You’re just tugging on this foliage, ripping it with your teeth and chewing it. It’s a remarkable thing to experience the world solely through your mouth.
You’re not selling us on this.
You’re missing out. There’s something about experiencing the world head first, face first, that’s so freeing. It’s a fascinating shift in perspective.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in the April 2016 issue of Men’s Health)