“Monkey boys,” “wolf girls,” “gazelle boys,” and even an “ostrich boy;” they are all part of the lore of the feral children. Also known as “wild children,” these are children who have grown up with little or no human contact, and they are therefore unaware of human social behavior or language. Some are thought to have been raised by animals, some have reportedly fended for themselves in the wild, and others have grown up in the forced isolation.
A feral child (also, colloquially, wild child) is a human child who has lived isolated from human contact from a very early age, and has no (or little) experience of human care, loving or social behavior, and, crucially, of human language, in some cases this abandonment was due to the parents' rejection of a child's severe intellectual or physical impairment. Feral children may have experienced severe pain before being abandoned or running away. Others are alleged to have been brought up by animals; some are said to have lived in the wild on their own. Over one hundred cases of supposedly feral children are known.
1. Peter the Wild boy (1725-1785)
Peter was a mentally handicapped Hanoverian of unknown parentage, who in 1725 was found living wild in the woods near Hamelin, the town of Pied Piper legend. Living off the forest’s flora, he walked on all fours, behaved like an animal and could not be taught to speak.
Once found, he was brought to the Kingdom of Great Britain by order of George I, whose interest had been aroused in the unfortunate youth during a visit to his Hanover homeland. An extraordinary amount of curiosity and speculation concerning Peter was excited in London, and the craze was the subject of a biting satire by Jonathan Swift, and of another entitled The Most Wonderful Wonder that ever appeared to the Wonder of the British Nation, which has been attributed to Swift and John Arbuthnot; Daniel Defoe also wrote on the subject, and James Burnett, Lord Monboddo in his Origin and Progress of Language presents the “Idiot Peter” as an illustration of his theory of the evolution of the human species.
The Princess of Wales, Caroline of Ansbach, took an interest in Peter’s welfare after the initial public curiosity began to subside and in 1726 she arranged for Dr Arbuthnot to oversee his education. All efforts to teach him to speak, read or write failed, though he is said to have developed a love of music. After George I’s death in 1727 Peter was given in charge to a schoolmistress, Mrs King of Harrow and then to a farmer, James Fenn of Axter’s End farm, Northchurch, Hertfordshire, with an annual allowance provided by Queen Caroline. Peter remained at this farm until Fenn’s death when his care was taken over by Fenn’s brother, Thomas of Broadway farm. He was to live here for the remainder of his life only venturing further afield once.
In the late summer of 1751 Peter went missing from Broadway Farm and could not be traced. Advertisements were placed in newspapers offering a reward for his safe return. On 22 October 1751 a fire broke out in the parish of St Andrew’s in Norwich. As the fire spread, the local bridewell became engulfed in smoke and flame. The frightened inmates were hastily released and one aroused considerable curiosity on account of his remarkable appearance, excessively hirsute and strong, and the barely human sounds he uttered, which led some to describe him as an orang-utan. Some days later he was identified as Peter the Wild Boy, possibly through a description of him in the London Evening Post. He was returned to Thomas Fenn’s farm and had a special leather collar with his name and address made for him to wear in future should he ever stray again.
He lived to an advanced age, was seen by Lord Monboddo in 1782, and died in 1785.
2. The Wild Boy of Avyon
Victor was a feral child who apparently lived his entire childhood naked and alone in the woods before being found wandering the woods near Saint-Sernin-sur-Rance, France, in 1797. He was captured, but soon escaped, after being displayed in the town. He was additionally periodically spotted in 1798 and 1799.
However, on January 8, 1800, he emerged from the forests on his own. His age was unknown but citizens of the village estimated that he was about twelve years old. His lack of speech, as well as his food preferences and the numerous scars on his body, indicated that he had been in the wild for the majority of his life. While the townspeople received him kindly, it was only a matter of time before word spread and the boy was quickly taken for examination and documentation.
3. Kasper Houser
On 26 May 1828, a teenage boy appeared in the streets of Nuremberg, Germany. He carried a letter with him addressed to the captain of the 4th squadron of the 6th cavalry regiment, Captain von Wessenig. Its heading read: Von der Bäierischen Gränz / daß Orte ist unbenant / 1828 (“From the Bavarian border / The place is unnamed [sic] / 1828?). The anonymous author said that the boy had been given into his custody, as an infant, on 7 October 1812, and that he had instructed him in reading, writing and the Christian religion, but had never let him “take a single step out of my house”. The letter stated that the boy would now like to be a cavalryman “as his father was”, and invited the captain to either take him in or hang him.
There was another short letter enclosed, purporting to be from his mother to his prior caretaker. It stated that his name was Kaspar, that he was born on 30 April 1812, and that his father, a cavalryman of the 6th regiment, was dead. In fact this letter was found to have been written by the same hand as the other one (whose line “he writes my handwriting exactly as I do” led later analysts to assume that Kaspar himself had written both of them.)
A shoemaker named Weickmann took the boy to the house of Captain von Wessenig, where he would repeat only the words “I want to be a cavalryman, as my father was” and “Horse! Horse!” Further demands elicited only tears, or the obstinate proclamation of “Don’t know.” He was taken to a police station, where he would write a name: Kaspar Hauser. He showed that he was familiar with money, could say some prayers, and read a little; but he answered few questions, and his vocabulary appeared to be rather limited.
He spent the following two months in Vestner Gate Tower, in the care of a jailer named Andreas Hiltel. Despite what many later accounts would say, he was in good physical condition and could walk well; for example, he climbed over ninety steps to his room. He was of a “healthy facial complexion” and approximately sixteen years old, but appeared to be intellectually impaired. Mayor Binder, however, claimed that the boy had an excellent memory and was learning quickly. Various curious people visited him, to his apparent delight. He refused all food except bread and water.
At first it was assumed that he had been raised half-wild in forests, but during many conversations with Mayor Binder, Hauser told a different version of his past life, which he later also wrote down in more detail. According to this story, he had, for as long as he could think back, spent his life totally alone in a darkened cell about two metres long, one metre wide, and one and a half high, with only a straw bed to sleep on and a horse carved out of wood for a toy.
He claimed that he had found bread and water next to his bed each morning. Periodically the water would taste bitter, and drinking it would cause him to sleep more heavily than usual. On such occasions, when he had awakened, his straw had been changed, and his hair and nails had been cut. Hauser claimed that the first human being with whom he had ever had contact had been a mysterious man who had visited him not long before his release, always taking great care not to reveal his face to him. This man, Hauser said, had taught him to write his name by leading his hand. After having learned to stand and to walk, he had then been brought to Nuremberg. Furthermore, the stranger allegedly had taught him to say the phrase “I want to be a cavalryman, as my father was” (in Bavarian dialect), but Hauser claimed that he had not understood what these words meant.
This tale, still famous today, aroused great curiosity and made Hauser an object of international attention. Rumours arose that he was of princely parentage, possibly of Baden origin, but there were also claims that he was an impostor.
4. Genie (1957-present)
Genie is the pseudonym for a feral child who spent nearly all of the first thirteen years of her life locked inside a bedroom strapped to a potty chair. She was a victim of one of the most severe cases of social isolation in American history. Genie was discovered by Los Angeles authorities on November 4, 1970.
Genie’s discovery was compared extensively with that of Victor of Aveyron, about whom a film was made, The Wild Child. Psychologists, linguists and other scientists exhibited great interest in the case due to its perceived ability to reveal insights into the development of language and linguistic critical periods. Initially cared for in the Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, Genie later became the subject of acrimonious debate over where and with whom she should eventually live, moving between the houses of the researchers who studied her, to foster homes, to her mother’s house, and finally to a sheltered home for adults with disabilities in California. Funding and research interest in her abilities eventually ceased. In 1994 a book was written about her case by Russ Rymer.
5. Oxana (1983-)
Oxana’s alcoholic parents were unable to care for her, and at three years of age she was exiled from her home. They lived in an impoverished area where there were wild dogs roaming the streets. She took refuge in a shed inhabited by these dogs behind her house. She was cared for by them and learned their behaviors and mannerisms. The bonding with the pack of dogs was so strong that the authorities who came to rescue her were driven away in the first attempt by the dogs. She growled, barked, walked on all fours and crouched like a wild dog, sniffed at her food before she ate it, and was found to have acquired extremely acute senses of hearing, smell and sight. She only knew how to say “yes” and “no” when she was rescued.
When she was discovered, Oxana found it difficult to acquire normal human social and emotional skills. She had been deprived of intellectual and social stimulation, and her only emotional support had come from the dogs she lived with. Oxana’s lack of exposure to language in a social context made it very difficult for her to improve her language skills.
Today, Oxana can speak and many of her behavior problems have been remedied. Whether she will be able to form strong relationships and feel part of any human community remains to be seen. In the British Channel 4 documentary, as well in the Portuguese SIC channel documentary, her doctors stated that it is unlikely that she will ever be properly rehabilitated into “normal” society.
As of 2010 at the age of 27, Oxana resides at a home for the mentally handicapped, where she helps look after the cows in the clinic’s farm. She has expressed that she is happiest when among dogs.
Named after an incarnation of the god Rama, this boy was first reported in 1973 in the Uttar Pradesh region of India, at roughly 12 years old, and as living an amphibian lifestyle in the Kuano river. He was captured 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 female attraction coupled with his ignorance of cultural mores and taboos.
7. Cambodian Jungle Girl
The so-called Cambodian jungle girl is a Cambodian woman who emerged from the jungle in Ratanakiri province, Cambodia on January 13, 2007. A family in a nearby village claimed that the woman was their daughter Rochom P’ngieng (born 1979) who had disappeared 18 or 19 years previously; the story was covered in most media as one of a feral child who lived in the jungle for most of her life. However, some reporters and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) questioned this explanation and suggested that she instead might be an unrelated woman who had been held in captivity.
The Bear Girl
In 1937 George Maranz described a visit to a Turkish lunatic asylum in Bursa, Turkey, where he met a girl who had allegedly lived with bears for many years. Hunters in a mountainous forest near Adana had shot a she-bear and then been attacked by a powerful little “wood spirit”. Finally overcome, this turned out to be a human child, though utterly bear-like in her voice, habits and physique. She refused all cooked food and slept on a mattress in a dark corner of her room. Investigations showed that a two-year-old child had disappeared from a nearby village 14 years earlier, and it was presumed that a bear had adopted her.
8. Kamala and Amala
The most famous wolf-children are the two girls captured in October 1920 from a huge abandoned ant-hill squatted by wolves near Godamuri in the vicinity of Midnapore, west of Calcutta, by villagers under the direction of the Rev JAL Singh, an Anglican missionary. The mother wolf was shot. The girls were named Kamala and Amala, and were thought to be aged about eight and two. According to Singh, the girls had misshapen jaws, elongated canines, and eyes that shone in the dark with the peculiar blue glare of cats and dogs. Amala died the following year, but Kamala survived until 1929, by which time she had given up eating carrion, had learned to walk upright and spoke about 50 words.
9. The Leopard Boy
A leopard-child was reported by EC Stuart Baker in the Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society (July 1920). The boy was stolen from his parents by a leopardess in the North Cachar Hills near Assam in about 1912, and three years later recovered and identified. “At the time the child ran on all fours almost as fast as an adult man could run, whilst in dodging in and out of bushes and other obstacles he was much cleverer and quicker. His knees had hard callosities on them and his toes were retained upright almost at right angles to his instep. The palms of his hands and pads of his toes and thumbs were also covered with very tough horny skin. When first caught, he bit and fought with everyone and any wretched village fowl which came within his reach was seized, torn to pieces and eaten with extraordinary rapidity.”
10. Prava, the Bird Boy
The most recent case of Mowgli Syndrome was that of a seven-year-old boy who was rescued by Russian healthcare workers after being discovered living in a two-bedroom apartment with his mother and an abundance of feathered friends. It would appear the small apartment doubled as an aviary with cages filled with dozens of birds. In an interview, one of his rescuers, Social Worker Galina Volskaya, said that his mother treated him like another pet. While he was never physically harmed by his mother, she simply never spoke to him. It was the birds who communicated with the boy
“He just chirps and when realising that he is not understood, starts to wave hands in the way birds winnow wings.” Quote from Social Worker, Galina Volskaya.
11. The Syrian Gazelle Boy
Jean-Claude Auger, an anthropologist from the Basque country, was traveling alone across the Spanish Sahara (Rio de Oro) in 1960 when he met some Nemadi nomads, who told him about a wild child a day’s journey away. The next day, he followed the nomads’ directions. On the horizon he saw a naked child “galloping in gigantic bounds among a long cavalcade of white gazelles”. The boy walked on all fours, but occasionally assumed an upright gait, suggesting to Auger that he was abandoned or lost at about seven or eight months, having already learnt to stand. He habitually twitched his muscles, scalp, nose and ears, much like the rest of the herd, in response to the slightest noise. He would eat desert roots with his teeth, pucking his nostrils like the gazelles. He appeared to be herbivorous apart from the occasional agama lizard or worm when plant life was lacking. His teeth edges were level like those of a herbivorous animal. In 1966 an unsuccessful attempt was made to catch the boy in a net suspended from a helicopter; unlike most of the feral children of whom we have records, the gazelle boy was never removed from his wild companions.
12. John Ssebunya
One day in 1991, a Ugandan villager called Milly Sebba went further than usual in search of firewood and came upon a little boy with a pack of monkeys. She summoned help and the boy was cornered up a tree. He was brought back to Milly’s village. His knees were almost white from walking on them. His nails were very long and curled round and he wasn’t house-trained. A villager identified the boy as John Sesebunya, last seen in 1988 at the age of two or three when his father murdered his mother and disappeared. For the next three years or so, he lived wild. He vaguely remembers monkeys coming up to him, after a few days, and offering him roots and nuts, sweet potatoes and kasava. The five monkeys, two of them young, were wary at first, but befriended him within about two weeks and taught him, he says, to travel with them, to search for food and to climb trees. He is now about 21 years old, and in October 1999 went to Britain as part of the 20-strong Pearl of Africa Children’s Choir.
In May 1972, a boy aged about four was discovered in the forest of Musafirkhana, about 20 miles from Sultanpur. The boy was playing with wolf cubs. He had very dark skin, long hooked fingernails, matted hair and calluses on his palms, elbows and knees. He shared several characteristics with Kamala and Amala: sharpened teeth, craving for blood, earth-eating, chicken-hunting, love of darkness and friendship with dogs and jackals. He was named Shamdeo and taken to the village of Narayanpur. Although weaned off raw meat, he never talked, but learnt some sign language. In 1978 he was admitted to Mother Theresa’s Home for the Destitute and Dying in Lucknow, where he was re-named Pascal and was visited by Bruce Chatwin in 1978. He died in February 1985.