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Acting Absolutely Beastly

By Michael Cook

Charles Foster has tried to reconnect with the animal world by living as a badger, a fox, a swift, a deer and an otter.

In its most expansive mode, bioethics deals with the biosphere and our responsibility for all living things. But it is a bold thinker who dares to tackle this, which helps to explain why the purview of most bioethicists is just Homo sapiens. Animals get short shrift. Somewhere I recall a photo of animal rights theoretician Peter Singer with a very large pig, both smiling broadly, but most of the time the setting for bioethical selfies is conferences surrounded by bottles of spring water.

The English academic Charles Foster, however, has made a valiant attempt to broaden the circle of concern. A barrister, travel writer, veterinarian, theologian, Oxford don, father of six and medical ethicist, the redoubtable Foster recently published a fascinating, if sometimes stomach-turning, account of his attempt to reconnect with the animal world.

In his book, Being a Beast, he tells how he lived as a badger, a fox, a swift, a deer and an otter. “Lived as” means “lived as”. Badger Foster lived underground, ate earthworms, scraped squirrel roadkill off the tarmac and devoured it with his 8-year-old son (cooked with wood sorrel and wild garlic, mind you), and lapped water “from a pool where leeches waved at our lips”.

Fox Foster lived in London like a furtive urban fox, scurrying down laneways, eating rancid pizzas and sleeping in gardens. If he felt sore and sorry, imagine what the fox felt like:

When they walk along fence tops like teenage Olympic Romanians on the beam, or blast from a hedge on to a wood pigeon, or seep like mercury up to a rabbit, they’re doing it with a back so bad that, were they office workers, it would have them signed permanently off work.

He paraglided to understand the acrobatics of swifts and ran before a bloodhound to imagine the terror that deer must feel. (He collapsed, and the disgusted dog turned back to its master.)

Otters were his least favourite animal. They are pitiless killing and eating machines, consuming the equivalent of 88 Big Macs per day. A human counterpart would “stay up for a couple of nights, drinking a double espresso every couple of hours, before having a cold bath followed by a huge breakfast of still-twitching sushi and then a nap, and then keep repeating until I die”. They were unpleasant companions, however hard he tried to mimic their agile savagery.

The lesson of the book is that humans need to engage with the natural world. Perhaps this is pertinent for both bioethicists and animal right activists. It’s one thing to tap away in front of a computer screen, and quite another to smell the damp earth, scrounge for food and sleep in fear of predators.

In its own eccentric way, Being a Beast is serious and profound. Personal identity is one of the major philosophical questions of our day. Can we change our gender? Can we leap over the prison walls of our own ego and culture? Foster’s book suggests that we cannot, but his attempts have endowed us with a valuable sense of humility.

I’m angry at humans who act towards the natural world with a lack of empathy which, if displayed towards other humans, would be seen as frankly psychopathic. We have this ability to engage the natural world on so many more levels than we actually do. I’m incredibly happy being a human being, but I’m much happier having learned the lessons about being human that these other species have taught me.

Besides, even human beings cannot escape their wilderness heritage: it is wired into our psyche through evolution. As a Cambridge graduate, Foster ought to know this. Here is what his classmates were told at graduation:

You’re about to leave Cambridge, gentlemen. Now, it may very well be true that the meek will inherit the earth, but my advice to you is this: until they show some signs of making a serious bid for that position, trample all over them.

Presumably the mature Foster regards this as otter bosh.

Michael Cook is editor of BioEdge, an online bioethics newsletter.