What most people remember about Charles Foster’s stint impersonating a badger is the worms. For six weeks, Foster and his eight-year-old son Tom did what badgers did, keeping their noses to the ground and learning to burrow in the moist earth of the Black Mountains of Wales. Afterwards, Foster described in exquisite detail the experience of sampling the culinary delights of eating earthworms, which “dripped from the hill like mucus candles from a snotty-nosed child,” as he put it in The Guardian in January.
But the focus on stomaching worms and other nasty fare rather misses the point, Foster insists. “It's about seeing what it's like when your nose is down there in the dirt,” he says.
Animal behavior researchers have long gleaned knowledge about other species by trying to fit in with animals and their social structures. British primatologist Jane Goodall famously spent years living among chimpanzees, our closest primate relatives, to understand more about their behavior. Zoologist and primatolgoist Dian Fossey gained insight into the group dynamics of Africa's mountain gorillas by integrating into their communities. Animal expert and autism advocate Temple Grandin has gotten into the minds of cows to think up ways to build more humane farms and slaughterhouses.
But Foster, a lecturer on medical law and ethics at the University of Oxford, wasn’t just trying to learn about animals—he was trying to learn about identity, and whether it's ever truly possible to know what's in another being's mind. For his immersive forays into the worlds of other animals, which he described in his 2016 book Being a Beast, Foster was jointly awarded the 2016 Ig Nobel Prize in Biology, the tongue-in-cheek award that honors “achievements that make people laugh, and then think.” The other half of the prize went to Thomas Thwaites, who lived among a herd of mountain goats by creating and donning a goatlike prosthetic exoskeleton.
Foster’s fascination with the minds of animals began young. As a child in Sheffield, he was struck by the way a blackbird in the garden looked at him with what seemed a knowing eye. “It plainly knew something about that little suburban garden that I didn't know. I thought I knew that garden fantastically well. I wanted to know what it saw, in that place, that I didn't see,” says Foster. “That seeded in me a fascination with what the natural landscapes I loved so much are like to the animals that know them so much more intimately than I do.”
Foster has spent time as an otter, floating, swimming and generally immersing himself in the riverine ecosystems of Exmoor. A turn as a red deer on the Scottish highlands had him experiencing the thrill of the hunt—but as prey. (Foster, a former hunter, arranged for a friend's hound to run him to ground.) He even explored the world of urban animals as a fox in London's East End, trailing the animals through the dark corners, dumpsters and alleys of the nocturnal city. Among the foxes, he found a sense of community he hadn't felt before, in a city where his human neighbors all seemed to be transplants from some other place.
“That was an attempt to see us the way that animals see us," he says.
Foster, a former lawyer and trained veterinarian, had long been fascinated with the philosophical question of whether we can see the world the way another person sees it. “Who am I, and can I ever really know another person, even my wife and children? What's in the head of even the people we know best?” as he puts it. Since that question is essentially unanswerable, he asked what seemed to be a simpler question: can I see a wood the way that a badger, fox or bird sees it? “I came to be fascinated with that question,” he says.
No matter which animal's skin he was donning, his method for doing so was the same. Humans rely heavily on their sense of vision, "which immediately gets distorted by the ways it's translated in the brain, meaning that we have a very warped and incomplete view of the natural world as it really is,” he says. So Foster tries to pay more attention to the other senses—smell, taste, touch and hearing—that are better utilized by animals in the wild. After all, these senses still deliver information to our brains even when we don't consciously realize it—running on background, so to speak.
Foster tried to “reawaken” the other senses by using sensory games, like trying to navigate by the smell of incense or simply by focusing his attention on them. “I marinated myself in the literature describing how the sensory apparatus of each species works, and how the information received is centrally processed,” he says. “And then I went out and lived as far as I could like each species.”
Thomas Thwaites, a designer by trade, was honored for his humorous investigation of what it's like to be a goat in the Swiss Alps. The result was GoatMan: How I Took a Holiday From Being Human. Like Foster, though in a different way, he sought to shed his distinctly human perspective and see the world through new eyes.
Thwaites originally considered living as an elephant, but settled on a goat, in part because it was easier to approximate the goat's physical attributes and relationship to the environment. He built a goatlike exoskeleton with help from Glyn Heath, a prosthetics design expert at the University of Salford in England. Together they created appendages that let Thwaites move as a goat and experience the world from the animal's perspective. The disguise went both ways: The appendages also let the goats see him as a similar species, rather than a bipedal human.
Since the better part of a goat's waking life is grazing, Thwaites tried to come up with a way to become a grazer himself. Unfortunately, mammals like ourselves can't digest grass the way that goats can. So he experimented with making an artificial rumen, the digestive chamber filled with bacteria and other microorganism that can break down grasses and extract nutrition. Experts warned him against relying on this for nourishment, since might contract serious stomach illnesses, so he chewed up grass during the day and cooked it at night in a pressure cooker.
The goal of his experiment, however, was more lofty than merely earning to subsist on a goat’s diet. “I suppose at root much of art and science is ultimately looking for new perspectives on this otherwise mundane world,” he explains. “The main goal was to see what present day science and technology have to say about this ancient human dream of becoming a non-human animal. I say 'ancient' because some of the earliest figurative art is of part human part non-human animal hybrids.”
Experiencing the world as a goat meant changing his perceptions and behaviors as well. For example, since goats are social animals, inter-goat communication was key. So Thwaites had to learn the goat “language,” which meant tapping into non-verbal skills, like posture, that he discovered that he already knew.
“Humans are all about communicating and reading each others thoughts, and of course that involves lots of non-verbal communication too,” he says. “This non-verbal communication translates across species, or at least the ones we’ve grown up around for the last few millennia, fairly well. When you walk through a scary part of town you can change your gait to be a bit more confident yet disinterested, and I guess being disinterested is a non-threatening signal.” In trying to fit in with the heard, he says, "I was aware of all the non-verbal language I’d picked up hanging around the various social situations and social groups that I have over the course of life in London.”
Even though Thwaites didn't set out to study the lives of goats, living among them did teach him some things that non-goat-impersonating humans probably wouldn’t know. For example: the astonishing variety of grasses in a given pasture. “I now realize that not all grass tastes the same: some is bitter, some is sweet, and much more desirable, at least to me,” he says. This realization gave him insight into the dynamics of goat hierarchy. “So the grass is a reason for a new goat introduced to the herd to try and secure it’s place high up in the hierarchy if it thinks it’s tough enough," he adds.
One of the revelations that any human impersonating an animal quickly learns is the fact that humans aren't always at the top of the pyramid. On goats’ turf, Thwaites says, you have to play by their rules—and they play by a strict hierarchy. In his case, he found out he wasn’t tougher than the average goat. “I was very submissive,” he reports. “I walked away from my one possible confrontation.”
There will always be limits to how far humans can go toward experiencing the world as other species do. The question is, how much does such impersonation teach us about what it's like to be them—and how much is learning about what it's like to be us? The answer remains to be seen. Foster notes of his earthworm experience: "all that it tells you is the adjectives that I have learned over the course of a lifetime to describe how worms taste. It doesn't tell you anything at all about how they taste to a badger.”