Do Goats Worry?

Thomas Thwaites and a goat (photo Tim Bowditch)

In GoatMan: How I Took a Holiday from Being Human, experimental designer Thomas Thwaites interviews neurologists, biologists, anatomists, goat sanctuary workers, and goat herders to find out what it would take to turn himself into a goat. After creating prosthetic goat legs, using a pressure cooker to digest grass, dissecting a dead goat, and using a machine to temporarily turn off the speech part of his brain, it’s off to the Alps to cross the mountains with a herd of his own kind. The following is an excerpt from Thwaites’ book.

Thomas and some goats at Buttercups Goat Sanctuary (photo Vera Marin)

My meeting with Dr. McElligott takes place back in his office at Queen Mary University. On the wall he has a framed edition of the prestigious journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B with an image of one of his very own test subjects on the front.

“Yeah, we got the cover,” he says all casually in his Irish accent. This is a man with impeccable goat credentials.

I want to find out about goat behaviour for obvious reasons. The reasons are not obvious to Dr. McElligott, however. We begin at the beginning.

“Why do you want to be a goat?” he asks.

“Well, I went to see a shaman, and she told me to be a goat.”

“Oh, right. I see,” says Dr. McElligott. After a pause, he continues: “Why did you go to see a shaman?”

“Well, I just got pretty glum about trying to become an elephant.”

“Right, of course,” says Dr. McElligott. Is that a resigned glance at the clock on the wall as I settle down at his desk?

“Dare I ask: Why did you want to become an elephant?”

“Ah, yes. . .Well, I think I was just feeling the weight of the world as a human and thought: Wouldn’t it be better to be an animal for a while? So I wouldn’t have to worry about, you know, human worries.”


“So I was wondering: Do goats worry?”



Thankfully, Dr. McElligott has more to say on the subject: “Actually, I wouldn’t call it worry. They get anxious — stressed, perhaps.”

goats following Thomas through the mountains (photo Tim Bowditch)

He tells me about an experiment they did at Buttercups [Goat Sanctuary] to investigate whether goats that arrived at the sanctuary from abusive homes exhibited a “negative cognitive bias”: that is, were they in a glass-half- empty frame of mind? Presented with an ambiguous stimulus, like a little corridor of a kind that they’d previously been trained to expect to have a tasty goat treat at the end only half the time, would they choose to walk down the corridor and have a look (glass half-full) or avoid it (glass half-empty)? By walking down the corridor or not, the goats thus revealed their mood to the ethologist peeking at them with clipboard in hand.

Buttercups is a sanctuary both in name and by nature. Many of the goats there have been rescued from more or less horribly unfortunate circumstances. When we arrived at the sanctuary, Bob told us some genuine horror stories. One goat, named Lucky, had been found in a pond by a member of the public. Its throat had been slit and tail cut off, and it had been left to drown. Amazingly, it survived and was brought to Buttercups: hence, Lucky. They thought another goat had black hair when it was brought in, but it turned out it was covered in diesel. It is called Diesel. Tales of humans abusing goats abound at Buttercups (there’s Curry and Bobbin, too). Dr. McElligott’s results showed that after at least two years of good care at Buttercups, goats rescued from abusive homes didn’t exhibit a negative cognitive bias compared to those that hadn’t been abused. In fact, female goats rescued from abusive homes were even slightly more positive than their nonabused counterparts, possibly suggesting long-term optimism after escaping their abusers.

In human equivalents of Dr. McElligott’s ambiguous-corridor experiment, some people exhibit a negative cognitive bias. This strongly correlates with their suffering from “low mood” and (if persistent) clinical depression (as gauged from their questionnaire answers). If goats outwardly show a negative cognitive bias, can we infer that inwardly they’re feeling low or even depressed? It would seem pretty churlish to deny goats emotions if equivalent behaviour in humans is accepted as indicating they’re feeling sad.

The cognitive bias experiment is in one form or another a commonly used way of getting around the fact that animals can’t tell you how they’re feeling (no surveys for goats along the lines of “In the past month, how often have you avoided social situations?”). Experiments have been done with sheep, dogs, rats, starlings, and little chicks. And after they’ve been subjected to various forms of (I’m sure ethically considered) stressful situations, all have shown a negative cognitive bias, so we can attribute internal emotional states to them, too. Animals other than ourselves show negative cognitive biases and therefore can feel sad. Not hugely surprising when we’re talking about goats or dogs or rats, but what about bees? Can a bee be depressed or at least have negative emotions? Because bees show cognitive biases, too. I asked one of the scientists who conducted the research on bees’ biases, Dr. Geraldine Wright of Newcastle University, what she thinks of this. Her reply was that it is “logically inconsistent to attribute emotions to goats and other animals on the basis of cognitive bias experiments and not bees.” So maybe there are some bees sadly buzzing around out there — or maybe demonstrating a negative cognitive bias isn’t in fact analogous to saying “I’m feeling sad.”

The fact that even the most basic of feelings are difficult to scientifically pin down in animals illustrates just how hard it is to say anything definite about what’s going on in their minds. It’s one reason why ethologists like Dr. McElligott are so cautious in what they say about the inner lives of animals.

Dr. McElligott returns to the subject of worrying goats.

“OK, then, while goats don’t worry, they will certainly have concerns, and these concerns will be based on how they’ve evolved. In the wild, an animal like a goat is a prey animal. They have to eat and go to the water hole to drink and so on, but they have to balance these needs with the risks inherent in trying to satisfy them. So at the same time as eating or whatever, they’re being vigilant for predators, always being slightly on edge.”

So my concerns as a wild goat would be how to eat food and how to avoid becoming food. I’ve never been a prey animal. Constantly being on edge because of the risk of suddenly being pounced on and eaten alive does sound a bit stressful, but hey, I live in gentrified urban Bankside, where I could get run over by a bus or a millionaire businessman in his sports car at any turn. Every animal has to live with the risk of sudden death, but only humans suffer from being able to consciously worry about it, especially with regard to all our lovers, friends, and family.

GoatMan: How I Took a Holiday from Being Human by Thomas Thwaites is available from:

Barnes & Noble
Your local bookshop

Thomas Thwaites is a designer whose work examines how science and technology interact with cultures to shape our present society and possible futures. As an undergraduate he studied economics and biology at University College London. He completed his master’s degree in Design Interactions at the Royal College of Art in 2009. Thwaites develops far-reaching design projects and creates work for public organizations, including London’s Design Museum, the Wellcome Trust, and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (all in the UK). He has spoken at a number of conferences across the world, including TED, Design Indaba (Cape Town, South Africa), and Design East (Osaka, Japan), and his work has been exhibited at major galleries worldwide, including the National Museum of China in Beijing, Ars Electronica in Linz, Austria, the ZERO1 Biennial in San Jose, California, and the Science Museum in London. The Victoria & Albert Museum recently acquired his Toaster Project for its permanent collection.

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