Mankind has celebrated a close connection with the animal kingdom since our Stone Age ancestors dressed in furs and painted bison on cave walls. Mythology abounds with tales of creatures which are half-man, half-beast, from werewolves to centaurs. In the transition from hunter-gatherers to city dwellers, we have gradually lost touch with the land, becoming distanced from the natural world and the wild things within it.
Two men who have tried to reconnect with the animal in all of us are Charles Foster, who explored what it’s like to live as a badger and a fox, and Thomas Thwaites, who joined a herd of goats in the Alps. Both have written books about their experiences.
Author, barrister and traveller Charles Foster set out to explore the lives of several animals including a badger, fox, otter and deer using what he terms “zoological method acting” to get into character. “In the journey from quadruped to biped, man became less intuitively related to the ground,” he explains. “If we rely mostly on vision, that’s only one of our five senses, so we’re using only 20 per cent of the available data. For a badger, the leading sense is smell. Foxes also have a good sense of smell and good eyesight. For otters, touch and hearing are important.”
Learning to be a badger, he lived in a sett and ate worms, and assumed the lifestyle of an urban fox by sleeping in gardens and foraging in bins. “I wanted lessons in how to be human more satisfactorily, by paying more attention to the senses. This took me into a world of synaesthetic wonderment,” Foster explains.
Perhaps the most challenging task he set himself was to enter the world of the swift, a bird which can sleep, eat and mate on the wing. Paragliding was the closest he could get.
Meanwhile, Thomas Thwaites, a designer with an interest in science and technology, associated the lives of animals with simplicity, escape and freedom – qualities that he envied and wanted to recapture in his own life. He wondered what it would be like to live as an animal, made an application to the Wellcome Trust, and was given a grant to pursue his project.
Thwaites sought the advice of a shaman, who suggested he might be better off being a goat.
Originally, he had planned to live among elephants, sophisticated creatures which have complex family groups and mourn their dead. But he soon realised that this plan wasn’t going to work, so sought the advice of a shaman, who suggested he might be better off being a goat.
He investigated the anatomy of the goat and built some prosthetic limbs which, after a fair amount of trial and error, enabled him to walk along on all fours. He then went to the Swiss Alps to meet a goatherd and spent several days with the herd on the mountainside.
The goat has a rumen, an extra part of the stomach which allows it to digest grass. Thwaites tried grazing alongside his herbivorous companions, but lacking the necessary digestive system, was unable to get much nourishment from the grass. “I never did sort out the eating part,” he admits.
After three days sleeping in the shed, the goatherd thought that the goats had accepted the newcomer and put a bell around his neck. But the experiment wasn’t as successful as Thwaites had hoped. “I thought it would be easy, but it was clear that we are all specialised in different things,” he concludes.
There is much we can learn from animals. We can admire their skills and copy them to an extent, but we aren’t anatomically adapted to being quadrupeds. Having developed a sizeable brain and learned to walk upright, there’s no going back – although we don’t have to dig too deep into our DNA to find common ground.
We share the same basic needs for food, water, warmth and shelter. Still hunter-gatherers at heart, we now source our food from supermarkets rather than berry-laden bushes. Our lives are more comfortable, but also more cluttered and complicated, leaving us less able to roam at will.
We still yearn to be at one with nature, if just for one day, or perhaps a long weekend without WiFi. Stripping away the sophistication to seek the simpler things in life can help us to appreciate the basic instincts and survival skills which we have in common with other creatures, and honour our shared evolutionary ancestry.
Thomas Thwaites, Goatman is published by Princeton Architectural Press.
Charles Foster, Being a Beast is published by Profile Books.
Image credit: Thomas Thwaites, Goatman. photo by Tim Bowditch