Feral Children: Fact or Fiction?
Tales of children who have somehow managed to live and survive in the wild, away from all human contact have fascinated us for centuries. From the legendary Romulus and Remus, the supposed founders of Rome who were raised by a she-wolf, to Mowgli, the boy who lived alongside wolves and bears in ‘The Jungle Book,’ and finally the iconic Tarzan of the apes.
Each of these so called wilderness or feral children have managed to learn the ways of the jungle, through progressively adopting the behaviour and the language of their adopted family. Through achieving this, these children have live and survived in the wild for many years, without ever glimpsing another human being.
But are such stories really true, or are they just a figment of our often over fertile imaginations. Could a child really survive in the wild, without anyone to care for them? Would other animals really take on the burden of caring for a human child, rather than just kill and eat them. But perhaps the most perplexing question of all, is if a child was ever left to fend for themselves in the wild for real, would they forget their human origins and transform into something else, something behaviourally resembling a wild beast? Below, I shall outline several historical case studies of children who have spent a significant portion of their lives either in the wild, or isolated from all human contact. Their experiences should give us an insight into what exactly makes us human; are we born human, or are we moulded into humans by our environment?
In the year 1799, on a cloudy afternoon in the South-West of France, two hunters stalked through the dense forest seeking deer. It had been a long day for them, and they hadn’t caught anything thus far. But their luck was about to change. For several years, the local villagers had spoken of a strange wild child that stalked through the forest like a wild beast. The villagers had succeeded in catching him twice before, but each time he had managed to escape their clutches.
On the third occasion though, he wouldn’t manage to get away and news of the capture of the wild child of Aveyron spread fast. In no time at all, the sensational news reached Paris and stimulated the interest of a young doctor called Jean Itard, who wished to study the boy in detail.
The wild child was brought to Paris, where most of the city’s medical professionals quickly dismissed him as an idiot. But there was something that captivated Itard about the young boy, now known as Victor. He took it upon himself to study the child in a wholly scientific way, supplying a great deal of information about the child in general, and what he did when he tried certain things. Essentially, the capture of Victor and the decision of Itard to study him, marks the beginning of the scientific study of feral children.
Itard, from the onset was determined to demonstrate that Victor could be integrated back into normal human society. For him, there were two tests that qualified an individual as a human; the ability to empathise and the ability to use language. Initially, Victor was wild and hard to control, but gradually the persistence of Itard, and his housekeeper Madame Guerain was rewarded, as Victor became more civilised. Slowly but surely Victor began to show real feelings for the people around him. He became especially close to Madame Guerain, helping to lay the table for her, among other tasks. But the real breakthrough came one lunchtime, when Madame Guerain all of sudden broke down and wept, while Victor laid the table. She had recently lost her husband and incredibly Victor seemed to understand her pain, and quietly removed the place setting. Itard was elated, Victor had passed his first test of humanity, he was able to put himself in the position of another human being, something which had seemed impossible when he had first been brought to Paris.
However, in trying to get Victor to speak. Itard would only ever experience frustration. He attempted to teach Victor language in the form of a game, using a drum and a bell to try to stimulate Victor to make vowel sounds, the building blocks of language. But for all of his efforts, Victor was unable to comprehend the lesson behind the game, and never learnt to make the sounds that other children take for granted. With the failure of the language test, Itard’s interest in the boy waned, and for the rest of his life, Victor lived under the care of Madame Guerain in Paris. He died at the comparatively young age of 40.
One of the most fascinating stories concerning feral children to emerge in recent times was the tale of two young girls, Kamala, who was said to be 8 years old when found in 1920, and Amala who was just 18 months old. Both girls had reportedly spent most of their lives totally isolated from humanity and living in the company of wolves in Midnapore, India. Despite the fact, that the two girls were found together, the likelihood of them being sisters was dismissed, instead it was said that they were just abandoned at the same time, or simply taken by wolves.
Soon stories spread like wildfire through the local villages, with the people speaking of ‘two ghostly figures’ that stalked the Bengalese jungle with the wolves. The girls were quickly associated with all that is evil and consequently a Reverend Joseph Singh was called in, to try and make sense of all the hysteria.
In order to investigate further, Singh took up residence in a tree that grew above the cave where the girls supposedly lived with the wolves. When he saw the wolves exit the cave, he caught sight of two humans following them, hunched over on all fours. In his own words he described them as ‘hideous looking with foot and body like a human being.’ He also stated that the girls show no trace of humanity whatsoever.
Singh eventually managed to capture the girls, and attempted to rehabilitate them, despite his lack of experience in that particular field. He noted that the girls slept curled together, growled, and tore off any clothing that he dressed them in. He also described how they preferred eating raw meat, and loved to howl; he also mentioned that both of them were physically deformed, possessing shortened legs and arms, which made the possibility of teaching them to walk upright unlikely. Additionally, neither Kamala and Amala showed any interest in interacting with humans. Singh noted down though, that their senses were exceptional, especially their vision, hearing and sense of smell.
Singh however, made very little progress with Amala as she died of sickness not long after he started his rehabilitation program. Kamala took the loss hard and almost died herself through grief, but she did manage to survive until she succumbed to kidney failure in 1929. During the time, she was under Singh’s care, she did manage to learn to walk upright and speak a few words.
Years later, a more in-depth investigation into the strange girls who lived with wolves, revealed the whole thing to be an elaborate hoax, perpetrated by Joseph Singh himself, who was probably desperate for money for his church. It turns out that he actually took Kamala and Amala from an orphanage and placed them in a wolf den, taking a photo of them sleeping, to serve as ‘undeniable’ proof. There are reliable claims that Singh wrote his diaries and reports, years after both girls had died, making it easier to sensationalise both girls deformities. Moreover, the doctor in charge of the orphanage dismissed all of the anomalies devised by Singh, such as howling and possessing sharp teeth, instead ascribing her deformities to a neurodevelopmental disorder known as Rett’s syndrome. It just goes to show just how difficult studying feral children can be, especially if some of the most famous historical accounts cannot be counted as viable evidence.
In 1970, officials in the Los Angeles suburb of Arcadia, officials took a 13 year old girl into their custody. They reported that the girl was kept in such extreme isolation by her parents that she never even learned to talk. When she was first found by a social worker, she was still wearing a diaper and uttering infantile noises. The child, known as Genie to protect her true identity had been kept locked inside a darkened room, strapped to a potty chair. At other times she was bound together and placed in a sleeping bag inside a crib by her abusive father, a man called Clarke Wiley, a loner who had turned his back on the world after his mother had been killed in a hit and run accident.
That tragedy transformed both the family and the house, neighbours often commented that the house was always in darkness and that they rarely saw anybody. Wiley punished Genie every time she tried to speak by hitting her with a stick and growling at her to keep quiet. He even forbade his wife and other children from speaking. Wiley’s wife, Irene was blind with cataracts and thus was too scared to resist, but she seized her chance to escape the house, along with Genie while Wiley was out buying groceries.
Eventually both of Genie’s parents ended up in the custody of sheriffs’ at the Temple City station, where they attempted to conduct interviews. Irene spoke, but made no mention whatsoever of her family. Wiley, on the other hand never uttered a word, and apparently never even acknowledged that he understood what was going on. But the reality was that Wiley knew that his terrible secret had been uncovered and so decided to take matters into his own hands, killing himself just before to court to face charges of child abuse.
Despite the fact, that Genie was raised in a city bedroom, her extreme isolation meant that she was just as much a feral child, as if she had been raised by wolves. She had just entered her teenage years, but she was just the size of a six year old. But worst of all, she had never learnt to speak properly, her vocabulary consisted of just 20 words, and simple phrases such as ’stop it’ and ’no more’ as a response to her abusive father.
Genie’s case fascinated scientists, as she now served as a way of demonstrating whether a human deprived of the chance to speak as a young child, could ever be taught in later life.
Upon her arrival at the Children‘s Hospital of Los Angeles, the team of scientists detailed to carry out research on her, met a girl who weighed just 59 pounds, and walked in a way reminiscent of a rabbit, with her hands facing downwards. She often spat and was unable to straighten her legs and arms. She was totally silent, incontinent and even unable to chew. She was unable to recognise any words, other than her own name and the word ’sorry’.
Genie made remarkable progress very quickly, soon learning how to use a toilet and how to dress herself. Over the next few months, she quickly and successfully developed other essential motor skills, but remained poor in the fundamentally critical area of language. On her initial linguistic assessment she scored the level of a one year old, but over the course of the next couple of years she started adding new words to her vocabulary, and even started stringing two or three words together. But crucially she never acquired the ability to use grammar, which is what separates our language from all other forms of vocal communication in the animal kingdom. Genie, it seems offers evidence that there is a critical period, covering the first few years our lives in which we can acquire language, if we fail to do this for some reason, then we can never learn to use grammar properly.
Genie’s inability to learn language fully, meant that she was often bundled from one hospital to another, as disputes between different researchers erupted. Eventually, she found a stable home with her therapist David Rigler, living there for four years. Rigler worked with her every day, and managed to successfully teach her sign language and express herself without needing to speak, using art as his primary method.
However, in 1974 the National Institute of Medical Health (NIMH) withdrew its funding and Genie was moved from Rigler’s care and returned to live with her birth mother, Irene, in the very same house she was abused in. But Irene found the task of raising Genie alone too difficult, so she was bundled off to one foster home after another, where she suffered further abuse and neglect. Irene decided to sue the hospital for excessive testing and won a substantial settlement. When the lawsuit was settled, questions were raised as to whether the scientific research interfered with Genie’s therapeutic treatment.
Today, Genie lives in an adult foster care home in Southern California; little is known about her present condition, although psychiatrist Jay Shurley, who visited her on her 27th and 29th birthdays gives us an insight, by describing her as largely silent and depressed. Genie’s case exposes and highlights both the rewards and risks that comes with trying to study and help a child, so badly treated and neglected by her family, to the point where she can be described as feral.
At the tender age of three, John Ssebunya, sometimes known as ‘The Ugandan Monkey Boy’ fled from his village into the African jungle, after witnessing his father brutally murder his mother. Once in the jungle, it seems that he fell into the care of green monkeys, who adopted him as one of their own. In 1991, he was found hiding a tree by a local tribeswoman called Millie. Clearly astonished, Millie rushed back to her village to alert the men, who elected to head into the jungle to capture John. Upon encountering the ‘Ugandan Monkey Boy’ they found themselves under attack from his adopted family, and were subsequently pelted with sticks. Eventually though, the villagers succeeded in apprehending John and taking him back to civilisation.
Once back in the security of the village, John was cleaned up, but curiously much of his body was covered in hair, a reflection of a condition known as hypertrichosis, that results in hair growth in places that don’t typically produce it. Also, as a consequence of his years in the wild, John had contracted a case of intestinal worms that were said to be over 1 and a half feet long, once they exited his body. He also carried an awful lot of injuries, mostly in the form of shredding on his knees from trying to imitate how the monkeys walked. John was then placed in the care of Paul and Molly Wasswa who ran an orphanage close to the village. Incredibly they succeeded in teaching him to speak, although many think that he already knew how to talk before he ran away. The important thing though, is that John’s story has a happy ending, he’s completely rehabilitated and now sings in the Pearl of Africa’s children’s choir and exhibits virtually no animalistic behaviour at all.
At the age of three years old, Ukrainian girl Oxana Malaya was locked out of her home by her alcoholic parents. With precious little recourse, she was forced to seek shelter in a kennel in the backyard of her home, where she sought the warmth and companionship of dogs. Oxana quickly picked up behaviours that we normally attribute to our canine friends including barking, growling and even protecting the pack. She even reverted to walking on all fours in the same manner as a dog, and sniffed her food before consuming it. Interestingly, when the Ukrainian authorities came to rescue her at the age of eight in 1991, her dog companions growled and attempted attack them, with Oxana following suit. Due to her virtually total lack of human interaction, Oxana’s vocabulary only consisted of two words ’yes’ and ’no.’
Upon rescue, she was quickly put through intensive therapy in order to reintegrate her into normal human society. She quickly acquired basic social and verbal skills, although therapists state that she will always have deep issues with attempting to communicate and express her emotions properly. At present, Oxana lives at the Baraboy Clinic in Odessa, where she spends most of her time tending to the cows at the hospital’s farm, although she still feels more comfortable around dogs, than either humans or cows.
On the 23rd January 2007, an extraordinary story emerged from Cambodia of a woman who had emerged from a patch of jungle located in the Ratanakiri province of the country. Apparently this woman, Rochom Pn’gieng (the Cambodian Jungle Girl) had lived in the jungle for more than 20 years. A family living in a village close to the jungle announced that the jungle woman was their daughter, and stated that her name was Rochom Pn’gieng and had been missing since 1979. Rochom was discovered after food from a man’s lunch-box had gone missing. That man set off on a hunt to retrieve his lunch with some friends and ended up capturing a naked and terrified Rochom. Clearly astonished at her condition, the man called in the Cambodian authorities.
Amazingly, the head policeman was her father, and apparently recognised her through prominent scars on her back and wrist. According to her father, Rochom and her sister had gotten lost in the jungle while herding buffalo, the sister has never been found and is thus presumed dead. After her discovery, attempts were made to try and get Rochom to readjust back to village life. When she was found, her vocabulary was limited to words like ’stomach-ache,’ ’mother,’ and ’father.’ In addition, a Spanish psychologist sent to study her, explained that she often muttered words that were totally incomprehensible to anyone. Whenever she became hungry or thirsty she would simply indicate her need for food or liquid by pointing to her mouth. She also preferred crawling on all fours, rather than walking upright, and refused to wear clothing. Despite numerous attempts to reintegrate her back into society; Rochom routinely escapes back into the jungle.
The case studies above show beyond all reasonable doubt that feral children do in fact exist, and will continue to exist as long as there are neglectful or abusive parents, or an opportunity presents itself for a child to run away, or if they should somehow accidentally become lost or separated from their parents. The most fascinating aspect about feral children is what they reveal about the human condition. For many years, debate has raged through the scientific world, in regards to whether we are solely a product of nature, or are we a product of our parents and the wider human world; essentially it’s the old nature vs. nurture debate.
Feral children, for me demonstrate unquestionably that we are not born human, instead we are moulded into humans, by our family and other humans that we share our environment with. Among mammals, we are unusual, in the fact that we are virtually helpless at birth and need almost constant care in the early years (0-12 years) of our lives. Therefore, if those early years are spent in isolation from humans, or in the company of other animals, then the consequences can be dire and almost totally irreversible.