A feral child (also called wild child) is a human child who has lived isolated from human contact from a very young age, and has little or no experience of human care, behavior, or, crucially, of human language. Some feral children have been confined by people (usually their own parents), and in some cases this child abandonment was due to the parents’ rejection of a child’s severe intellectual or physical impairment. Feral children may have experienced severe abuse or trauma before being abandoned or running away. Feral children are sometimes the subjects of folklore and legends, typically portrayed as having been raised by animals.
Myths, legends, and fictional stories have depicted feral children reared by wild animals such as wolves, apes, monkeys, and bears. Famous examples include Romulus and Remus, Ibn Tufail’s Hayy, Ibn al-Nafis’ Kamil, Rudyard Kipling’s Mowgli, Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Tarzan, and the legends of Atalanta, and Enkidu.
Legendary and fictional children are often depicted as growing up with relatively normal human intelligence and skills and an innate sense of culture or civilization, coupled with a healthy dose of survival instincts. Their integration into human society is made to seem relatively easy. One notable exception is Mowgli, for whom living with humans proved to be extremely difficult.
The mythical children are often depicted as having superior strength, intelligence and morals compared to “normal” humans, the implication being that because of their upbringing they represent humanity in a pure and uncorrupted state, a notion similar to that of the noble savage.
The subject is treated with a certain amount of realism in François Truffaut’s 1970 film L’Enfant Sauvage (UK: The Wild Boy, US: The Wild Child), where a scientist’s efforts in trying to rehabilitate a feral boy meet with great difficulty.
Feral children lack the basic social skills that are normally learned in the process of enculturation. For example, they may be unable to learn to use a toilet, have trouble learning to walk upright after walking on fours all their lives, or display a complete lack of interest in the human activity around them. They often seem mentally impaired and have almost insurmountable trouble learning a human language. The impaired ability to learn a natural language after having been isolated for so many years is often attributed to the existence of a critical period for language learning, and taken as evidence in favor of the critical period hypothesis.
There is little scientific knowledge about feral children. One of the best-documented cases has been that of sisters Amala and Kamala, described by Reverend J. A. L. Singh in 1926 as having been "raised by wolves" in a forest in India. French surgeon Serge Aroles, however, has persuasively argued that the case was a fraud, perpetrated by Singh in order to raise money for his orphanage. Child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim states that Amala and Kamala were born mentally and physically disabled.
The historian Herodotus wrote that Egyptian pharaoh Psammetichus I (Psamtik) sought to discover the origin of language by conducting an experiment with two children. Allegedly, he gave two newborn babies to a shepherd, with the instructions that no one should speak to them, but that the shepherd should feed and care for them while listening to determine their first words. The hypothesis was that the first word would be uttered in the root language of all people. When one of the children cried “bekos” (a sound quite similar to the bleating of sheep) with outstretched arms the shepherd concluded that the word was Phrygian because that was the sound of the Phrygian word for bread. Thus, they concluded that the Phrygians were an older people than the Egyptians.
Roman legend has it that Romulus and Remus, twin sons of Rhea Silvia and Mars, were raised by wolves. Rhea Silvia was a priestess, and when it was found that she had been pregnant and had children, King Amulius, who had usurped her father’s throne, ordered her to be buried alive and for the children to be killed. The servant who was given the order set them in a basket on the Tiber river instead, and the children were taken by Tiberinus, the river god, to the shore where a she-wolf found them and raised them until they were discovered as toddlers by a shepherd named Faustulus. He and his wife Acca Larentia, who had always wanted a child but never had one, raised the twins, who would later feature prominently in the events leading up to the founding of Rome (named after Romulus, who eventually killed Remus in a fight over whether the city should be founded on the Palatine Hill or the Aventine Hill).
Controversy and criticism
Following the 2008 disclosure by Belgian newspaper Le Soir that the bestselling book Misha: A Mémoire of the Holocaust Years and movie Survivre avec les loups (“Surviving with Wolves”) was a media hoax, the French media debated the credulity with which numerous cases of feral children have been unquestioningly accepted. Although there are numerous books on these children, almost none of them have been based on archives; the authors instead have used dubious second- or third-hand printed information. According to the French surgeon Serge Aroles, who wrote a general study of feral children based on archives (L’Enigme des Enfants-loups or The Enigma of Wolf-children, 2007), many alleged cases are totally fictitious stories.
Documented or alleged cases
14th to 19th centuries
- Hessian wolf-children:15–7 (1304, 1341 and 1344).
- The Bamberg boy, who grew up among cattle (late 16th century).:18–9
- Hans of Liege.:19[clarification needed (folklore?)]
- An Irish boy brought up by sheep, reported by Nicolaes Tulp in his book Observationes Medicae (1672).:20–1 Serge Aroles gives evidence that this boy was severely disabled and exhibited for money.:199–201
- The three Lithuanian bear-boys (1657, 1669, 1694).:21–28 Serge Aroles shows from the archives of the Queen of Poland (1664–1688) that these are false. There was only one boy, found in the forests in spring 1663 and then brought to Poland's capital.:196
- The girl of Oranienburg (1717).:29–31
- The two Pyrenean boys (1719).:32
- Peter the Wild Boy of Hamelin (1724).:32–41 Mentally handicapped boy, affected with Pitt-Hopkins Syndrome. He lived only one year in the wild.
- Marie-Angélique Memmie Le Blanc, the Wild Girl of Songi, also known as the Wild Girl of Champagne (France, 1731).:41–48 This is the only case of a child having survived 10 years in the forests (from November 1721 to September 1731), and the only feral child who succeeded in a complete intellectual rehabilitation, having learned to read and to write. According to biographer Serge Aroles, Marie-Angelique was 19 years old when she was captured, learned to read and write, and died on December 15, 1775 at the age of 63. An Amerindian from Wisconsin (then a French colony), she was brought to France by a lady living in Canada and then escaped into the woods of Provence in 1721.
- Hany Istók of Kapuvár, Hungary (1749).
- The bear-girl of Krupina, Slovakia (1767).:48–9 Serge Aroles found no traces of her in the Krupina archives.
- The teenager of Kronstadt (1781).:49–55 According to the Hungarian document published by Serge Aroles, this case is a hoax: the boy, mentally handicapped, had a goitre and was exhibited for money.
- Victor of Aveyron (1797), portrayed in the 1969 movie, The Wild Child (L'Enfant sauvage), by François Truffaut.:55–63 Once more, Serge Aroles gives evidence in this famous case indicating that Victor does not match the description of a genuine feral child.
- Kaspar Hauser (early 19th century), portrayed in the 1974 Werner Herzog film The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (Jeder für sich und Gott gegen alle).
- The Lobo Wolf Girl of Devil's River (1845), a figure in Texas folklore, was captured in 1846, but escaped. She was last spotted at age 17 in 1852.
- The "ostrich boy". A boy named Hadara was lost by his parents in the Sahara desert at the age of two, and was adopted by ostriches. At the age of 12, he was rescued and taken back to society and his parents. He later married and had children. The story of Hadara is often told in west Sahara. In 2000, Hadara's son Ahmedu told his father's story to the Swedish author Monica Zak, who compiled it to a book. The book is a mixture of the stories told by Ahmedu and Zak's own fantasy.
- Amala and Kamala, claimed to have been found in 1920 by missionaries near Midnapore, Calcutta region, India, later proved to be a hoax to gain charity for Rev. Singh's orphanage:104–113
- Robinson Crusoes of Warsaw and wolf children, abandoned or escaped children in northeastern Europe during and after World War II
- Marcos Rodríguez Pantoja (ca. 1946, Sierra Morena, Spain) lived for 12 years with wolves until he was 19 in the mountains of Southern Spain. Rodriguez's story was depicted in the 2010 Spanish-German film Entrelobos. For his portrayal of Rodriguez, young actor Manuel Camacho received a Best New Actor nomination at the 2011 Goya Awards.
- Syrian Gazelle Boy (1946): A boy aged around 10 was reported to have been found in the midst of a herd of gazelles in the Syrian desert in the 1950s, and was only rescued with the help of an Iraqi army jeep, because he could run at speeds of up to 50 km/h. However, it was a hoax, as are the other gazelle-boy cases (see below).
- Vicente Caucau (1948): Chilean boy found in a savage state at age 12, allegedly raised by pumas.
- Ramu, Lucknow, India, (1954), a girl taken by a wolf as a baby, and raised in the jungle until the age of seven. Aroles made inquiries on the scene and classifies this as another hoax.
- Marina Chapman, who maintains she lived with weeper capuchin monkeys in the Colombian jungle from the age of four to about nine, following a botched kidnapping in about 1954. Unusually for feral children, she went on to marry, have children and live a largely unremarkable life with no persisting problems.
- Saharan Gazelle Boy (1960): found in Rio de Oro in the Spanish Sahara, written about by Basque traveller Jean-Claude Auger, using the pseudonym Armen in his 1971 book L'enfant sauvage du grand desert, translated as Gazelle Boy. When Serge Aroles made inquiries concerning this case in 1997, gathering testimonies in Mauritania, Armen himself admitted that he had written "a book of fiction".
- Genie, discovered 1970 in Los Angeles. Confined to one room and abused by her father for 13 years.
- Robert (1982). The child lost his parents in the Ugandan Civil War at the age of three, when Milton Obote's looting and murdering soldiers raided their village, around 50 miles (80 km) from Kampala. Robert then survived in the wild, presumably with vervet monkeys, for three years until he was found by soldiers.
- Ramachandra (1970s and 1980s). First reported in 1973 in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, at roughly 12 years old, and as living an amphibian lifestyle in the Kuano river. He was rescued in 1979 and taken to a nearby village. He only partly adapted to a conventional lifestyle, still preferring raw food, walking with an awkward gait, and spending most of his time alone in nearby rivers and streams. He died in 1982 after approaching a woman who was frightened by him, and who badly scalded Ramachandra with boiling water. Historian Mike Dash speculates that Ramachandra's uncharacteristically bold approach to the woman was sparked by a burgeoning sexual attraction coupled with his ignorance of cultural mores and taboos.
- Baby Hospital (1984). This seven-year-old girl was named Baby Hospital by an Italian missionary who found her in Sierra Leone. She had apparently been brought up by apes or monkeys. Baby Hospital was unable to stand upright and crawled instead of walking, and ate directly from her bowl without using her hands. She made the chattering noises of apes or monkeys. Baby Hospital's arms and hands were reported to be well developed, but not her leg muscles. She resisted attempts to civilize her, and spent much of her time crying: a very unusual form of expression for feral children.
- Saturday Mthiyane (or Mifune) (1987). A boy of around five was found after spending about a year in the company of monkeys in Kwazulu-Natal, South Africa. He was given the name Saturday after the day he was found, and Mthiyane was the name of the headmistress of the Special School which took him in. In 2005, at the age of around 17, he could still not talk, and still walked and jumped like a monkey. He never ate cooked food and refused to share or play with other children.
- Oxana Malaya, Ukraine, (1990s). A girl who bonded with dogs and imitated their behaviour. For five years, until she was 8 years old, Oxana Malaya was neglected by her alcoholic parents and lived with dogs. When she was found by state authorities she was not able to talk, ran around on all fours barking, slept on the floor, she ate and took care of her hygiene like a dog. Upon adulthood, Oxana has been taught to subdue her dog-like behavior, she learned to speak fluently and intelligently, she works at the farm milking cows, but remains somewhat intellectually impaired.
- Daniel, Andes Goat Boy (1990). Found in Peru, and was said to have been raised by goats for eight years.
- John Ssebunya, Uganda, (1991) raised by monkeys for several years in the jungle.
- Belo, the Nigerian Chimp Boy (1996) about two years of age, raised by chimpanzees for a year and a half.
- Ivan Mishukov (1998). Found near Moscow, raised by dogs for two years, and had risen to being "alpha male" of the pack. Because he had lived among the dogs for only two years, he relearned language fairly rapidly. He studied in military school and served in Russian Army.
- Alex the Dog Boy (2001). Found in Talcahuano, Chile.
- Traian Căldărar, Romania (2002). Roma child born in Poland; he lived for three years with wild dogs in the wilderness. Now he is a "normal" child who likes football and mathematics.
- Andrei Tolstyk (2004) of Bespalovskoya, near Lake Baikal, Russia. Was abandoned by parents, to be raised by a guard dog.
- Cambodian jungle girl (2007). Alleged to be Rochom P'ngieng, who lived 19 years in the Cambodian jungle. Other sources questioned these claims.
- Name Unknown, Uzbekistan, (2007). Found after eight years.
- Lyokha, Kaluga, Central Russia (December 2007). He had been living with a pack of wolves, and had typical wolflike behavior and reactions. He was unable to speak any human language. Taken to a Moscow hospital, he received some medical treatment, a shower and manicure, and several meals before escaping from the building.
- Danielle Crockett, Plant City, Florida, United States (2007–2008). Dani had been locked in her room and deprived of human interaction for the first 7 years of her life. She was found and adopted and is currently undergoing efforts to acclimate her to human conditioning including learning English and effective communication.
- Name Unknown ("Russian bird boy"), Russia, (2008). A seven-year-old boy was found who spent his entire life living in a tiny two bedroom apartment surrounded by birds. His mother never spoke to him and treated him as a pet, and when found he was unable to communicate except for chirping and flapping his arms like wings.
- Natasha, Chita, Zabaykalsky Krai, Russia (2009), a five-year-old girl who spent her entire life locked in a room with cats and dogs, and no heat, water, or sewage system. When she was found, she could not speak, would jump at the door and bark as caretakers left, and had "clear attributes of an animal".
- Ng Chhaidy, Theiva near Saiha, Mizoram, India (2012), who went missing in a jungle aged four, returning 38 years later.
- Child development
- Cognitive ethology
- Critical period hypothesis
- Language deprivation experiments
- Psychogenic dwarfism
- Street child
- Wild man
References and notes
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