The Mystery of Feral Children
There have been stories of feral children for centuries. Raised in the wild–sometimes even by animals–these children are described as “wild” and “un-domesticated.” They have lived in isolation from other people for so long that they are unaware of social norms; that is, typical behaviors such as bipedal walking and even the basics of human grammar and speech.
Historical and modern accounts of real feral children are very rare, with only around a hundred reported cases. Even in these cases, there is reason to believe many of them may be more fiction than fact.
History of Feral Children
In ancient mythology, Romulus and Remus were brothers who were raised by wolves and went on to become the founders of Rome. In Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, Mowgli is a boy who lives in the wild and behaves like one of the animals. He is stronger and lives by a higher moral code than most human children.
In 1920 a priest named Reverend Singh said he, as well as missionaries he was working with, discovered two young girls being raised by wolves in a forest in Calcutta, India. These girls were called Amala and Kamala. Singh kept detailed journals of his work with the girls, and the media reported the case. Eventually, the truth became known: Amala and Kamala were severely handicapped children who had lived their whole lives in his orphanage. The story of the wolves was created to raise money for the orphanage and other missions work.
However, not all cases of feral children are myths. Some children who are kidnapped, abused or become lost have been raised in isolation from most human contact. In the few real cases that have been discovered, the children’s development has been severely hampered by the lack of human interaction. The process of rehabilitation is slow and difficult, with a few learning to walk bipedally and eat with utensils but all severely behind in language development.
Feral Children: Fact from Fiction
The only things necessary to create a feral child is to deprive a child of human care. This extreme neglect prevents the child from experiencing and learning human emotions, social behaviors, and human languages. Feral children often appear to be mentally and physically impaired. In some cases, there is a chance the child suffered from severe intellectual or physical impairment before the neglect, but in most cases the children were born healthy.
There has never been a proven case of a child who was raised by animals, and many of the stories of feral children discovered in the wild have proven to be either myth or fiction. There are very real cases, however, of children who are severely neglected and suffer from issues due to a lack of human interaction.
Genie was one of the first well-publicized cases of a true feral child. She was discovered in 1970 in her Los Angeles home. Her father had kept her confined to a single room for 12 years. In a very similar story, Oxana Malaya was discovered in the Ukraine during the 1990s. Her parents kept her in the kennels with several dogs, and she lived there until she was rescued at age 8.
Dani was found in 2005. The 6-year-old had lived her entire life in a small room with broken windows in the back of the house where her mother and two older brothers lived. She was adopted and now attends special education classes.
Natasha, a native of Zabaykalsky Krai, Russia, was found in 2009. She was 5-years-old. Her parents have kept her locked in a room with several cats and dogs, as well as no heat or running water. Due to her young age, doctors have hope she will recover better than many other feral children.
Scientific Interest in Feral Children
Feral children provide scientists an interesting view of humanity that no other person could provide. Feral children are devoid of enculturation, meaning they lack the basic social skills and communication skills that are naturally developed in a healthy child when they are surrounded by other people. These children show that humans do not instinctually learn to use a toilet or to have interest in the human activities around them.
More than anything else, however, feral children have changed the way scientists look at human language. Having never been exposed to human language, feral children do not speak. In fact, they have a severely impaired ability to learn language and interhuman communication. This supports a hypothesis known as the critical period theory. This hypothesis states that first language acquisition can only occur during a critical development period, when children are very young. As noted above, one of the most cited cases of feral children and language development is that of Genie. She did learn many words and learned to use them together. However, her progress arrested at the level of a toddler, and she never developed a sense of grammar.
- National Geographic has a special about feral children, complete with video, pictures, links and more information.
- 10 Modern Cases of Feral Children is a top-10 list published by Listverse.
- Feral Children: Living With Beasts is a look at children who were rumored to be raised by animals.
- Kids Gone Wild: Shocking Stories of Feral Children is a resource provided by Mental Floss.
- Savage Girls and Wild Boys is a BBC webpage about feral children; the website includes links to other resources on the topic.
- “Modern Cases of Feral Children” is an article hosted by Health Guidance.
- Feral Children, by J. Berger is a video about the history of feral children.
- Linguistics: The Cambridge Survey Volume 2, Linguistic Theory is a linguistics textbook about how people learn grammar and syntax.
- Language Acquisition: The Age Factor (2nd Edition) is a book by leading language acquisition researchers.
- Secrets of the Wild Child is a movie about Genie Wiley. It is available for free on YouTube.
- Language Acquisition of Feral Children is a blog about language acquisition, theories and case studies.
- Wolf Children and the Bifold Mind discusses feral children and the Vygotskian hypothesis.
- Nurture or Nature was published by OmniNerd in 2006. It focuses on the science of feral children, primarily Oxana.
- Grim Fate Awaits Children Held in Cellar is a story from ABC News about three children who were locked in an Austrian basement with their mother. It compares and contrasts their story with that of feral children.
- The Girl in the Window was a newspaper story published about Dani, her discovery, adoption and recovery.
In The Jungle Book, Mowgli is a feral child.
(Image by Disney, courtesy of Threat Quality Press.)