How Feral Children Work


Romulus and Remus are some of mythology's original feral children.
Romulus and Remus are some of mythology's original feral children.
Sylvain Sonnet/Getty Images

In the ancient world, Rhea Silvia was a princess. Her dad, Numitor, was king of the city of Alba Longa, situated roughly midway down the Italian peninsula. But when her uncle Amulius elbowed Numitor aside and took the throne for himself, he banished Rhea to a temple where she was obliged to be a vestal virgin. Uncle Amulius didn't want any troublesome grand-nephews gunning for him in the future.

But you can't keep gods out of temples, especially those randy ancient ones. Sure enough, Mars, that red-hot god of war, showed up one night, and soon Rhea was pregnant. To make matters worse, she gave birth to twins — Romulus and Remus.

Uncle Amulius was not having it, and he ordered his men to grab the newborns, take them down to the Tiber River and dump them. The assumption was that wild animals would make short work of the babes. The plan backfired when a mama wolf showed up and suckled the twins. Not only that, a helpful woodpecker flapped back and forth with provisions. Between these unlikely parental figures, the two boys survived until they were found and taken in by a shepherd.

The twins grew up to be big, strong warriors who were soon gunning for their grand-uncle Amulius, just as he'd feared. In short order, they toppled him and restored their grandad Numitor. Full of vim, they headed north to start their own city. Having found a likely spot, they had an argument about which hill would make the best site. The argument soon heated up to fratricidal temperatures when Romulus killed Remus, thus settling the question. Romulus founded his eponymous city on Palatine Hill, establishing himself as one of the most famous of all feral children, the founder of Rome itself.

Real-life Celebrity Feral Children

Peter the Wild Boy, circa 1780. He was found wandering in the woods near Hamelin in 1725 and was brought to England as a curiosity by King George I. A feral child, he never learned to speak, and he died in England in 1785.
Peter the Wild Boy, circa 1780. He was found wandering in the woods near Hamelin in 1725 and was brought to England as a curiosity by King George I. A feral child, he never learned to speak, and he died in England in 1785.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

A kid doesn't have to suckle a wolf to be considered a feral child. The term covers any minor who has spent months or years isolated from human contact. While world mythology is full of stories like that of Romulus and Remus, there are some real-life instances in which children have spent years in solitude, often with animals as their closest companions. But the phenomenon is so rare that there are little more than a hundred instances of it in recorded history [source: ScienceDaily].

In the 1700s the townspeople of Hanover, in what is now northern Germany, came across a naked boy walking on all fours. He was about 12 years old and had clearly been living wild for many years. Given the name Peter, the boy became a celebrity and ended up living in England under royal patronage.

In the forests of southern France in 1800, a boy later dubbed Victor of Aveyron was captured naked and wild. He became the subject of scientific research and, in the 20th century, a film by Francois Truffaut.

Earlier, and farther north, in Champagne, France, a wild girl surfaced in 1731 wearing nothing but rags, skins and a gourd leaf for a hat. It seemed that her thumbs and fingers were overdeveloped because of her habit of climbing trees and swinging from branch to branch. Given the option, she preferred her meat raw and was able to skin a rabbit and devour it in a matter of minutes.

Baptized Marie-Angelique Memmie Le Blanc, the girl spoke no language known to her patron, the Viscount d'Epinoy. But she soon learned to speak French fluently, and when she did, a strange story emerged. It seemed that Memmie had been kidnapped from an unknown land, sold into slavery and shipwrecked off the coast of France where she made it to shore and survived in the wild for an unknown amount of time. It was later deduced that Memmie was probably a Native American from what is now the Midwestern U.S.

Like Peter and Victor, Memmie achieved a degree of celebrity in her time. Contemporaries looked to these stories of feral children with romantic fascination. As upper class Europeans became increasingly anxious about the "decadence" of their era, wild children were viewed as instances of a pure humanity emanating directly from a nature untainted by the corrupting forces of civilization [source: Newton].

But do feral children truly represent humanity in its natural state? The short answer is no. The slightly longer answer is next.

Modern-day Feral Children

Mother Teresa comforts the Indian wolf boy Shamdeo at her charity home 'Prem Niwas' in Lucknow in 1980.
Mother Teresa comforts the Indian wolf boy Shamdeo at her charity home 'Prem Niwas' in Lucknow in 1980.
AFP/Getty Images

The true stories of feral children, especially the well-documented cases of the 20th and 21st centuries, are actually heartbreaking stories for the most part, including, as they often do, tales of abuse, abandonment and poverty.

Take the famous case of Ivan Mishukov, who was, in many ways, a victim of the hard times visited upon post-Soviet Russia. In 1990s Moscow, Ivan's home life was so fraught with alcoholism and chaos that, at the age of 4, he decided life on the streets was preferable.

Like many homeless people, Ivan begged. But he also shared the scraps he got with a local pack of wild dogs. In time, the dogs grew to trust him so much, he became their leader. They kept him warm through the long, freezing winters, and they guarded him with ferocity from all comers, including the police. In fact, it took the cops multiple tries to separate the dogs from their leader and get the snarling boy off the streets. Because he was 4 when he left home, Ivan had already learned to speak, and begging on the streets for two years forced him to maintain his verbal skills. As a result, reintegration into society was easier for him than some [source: Newton].

Because cases of feral children are so rare, there seem to be no hard and fast rules about how reintegration works. In general it seems to entail slowly and gently teaching kids to behave according to social norms, much as one raises a typical child.

Other cases have unhappier endings. Shamdeo was a boy found gamboling with wolf cubs in an Indian forest in 1972. While he eventually gave up his preference for raw meat, Shamdeo, who was 4 when discovered, never learned to speak and died at the age of 17 in Mother Theresa's Lucknow Home for the Destitute and Dying. His cause of death remains unknown [source: Bumiller].

Sujit Kumar was 8 when he was spotted clucking and flapping his arms like wings in the middle of a road in Fiji in 1978. His parents had found him so difficult to handle from an early age they thought it would be a good idea to lock him in a chicken coop. There he stayed even after his father's murder and mother's suicide because his grandfather, who took charge of him, decided to continue with the poultry set-up. At the senior home where he was taken upon discovery, Sujit perched, rather than sat, on chairs, pecked food and was so aggressive that the institutional workers tied him to his bed with sheets for the next 20 years. He was rescued from this hellish situation by a benefactor who now cares for him privately [source: Frank].

Again, the rarity of feral children makes it difficult to point to any general rules about their psychology. In the mid-20th century Bruno Bettelheim, writer and child psychologist, theorized that the fantastical tales of wild kids were actually instances of children with autism abandoned by their parents [source: Bettelheim]. Subsequent researchers feel it's too difficult to speculate about the mental state of feral children based on such a tiny sample size [source: Casanova].

Far from providing illustrations of humans in some natural, Edenic state, feral children clearly demonstrate the degree to which children need constant and compassionate human contact to develop into happy, healthy adults. Humans, after all, are highly social creatures, and if the stories of kids raised in isolation prove anything, it's that being alone isn't very good for us.

But tales of feral children have more to tell than that.

Who's Savage?

Smile! It's your potential new family of capuchin monkeys!
Smile! It's your potential new family of capuchin monkeys!
Victor Korechenko/Getty Images

As sad as they often are, stories of wild kids also show just how adaptable and resourceful we can be, even at our earliest, most vulnerable stages of development.

These cases also put the lie to the essentialist idea that the natural world is always a cruel and unforgiving environment. So many of these stories, in fact, offer exemplary accounts of interspecies relationships. In story after story, animals care for, or at the very least tolerate, defenseless human children and show them how to survive in the wild.

Marina Chapman, for instance, would almost certainly have died if it weren't for a group of monkeys. In 2013 Chapman was a British housewife when she published a memoir that revealed her extraordinary backstory. Marina wasn't born in the U.K. She came, in fact, from a remote South American village. In the mid-1950s when she was just 5, she was kidnapped from her home and then later abandoned in the jungle.

Luckily for her, she happened upon a band of tiny, super-cute capuchin monkeys. She followed them around until, at one point, she developed food poisoning from a tamarind fruit. She felt like she was dying when an older monkey, whom she later dubbed "grandpa," led her to water. After she drank, she threw up and began to get better, at which point the band let her tag along with them. For the next five years she lived with the monkeys, adopting their ways right down to diet, four-legged walking, tree-climbing and grooming. In fact, the monkey interlude was probably one of the happiest episodes of her childhood. Humans proved less inclusive.

When she eventually worked up the nerve to seek help from a group of hunters, they sold her to a brothel. She escaped to live life on the streets but was then enslaved by a local gangland family. A neighbor saved her from this fate, and she was adopted in Bogota, Colombia, then went to work as a housekeeper and nanny for a family that emigrated to the U.K. in 1977. There, Marina married, had children and eventually co-authored her memoir with one of her daughters. While there's no way to fully confirm all aspects of Chapman's story, and while some are skeptical about the details, even hardened journalists find her convincing [source: Hattenstone].

Marina's story, like many others about feral children, reveals some of the uglier sides of humanity. In fact, the capuchin monkeys were far more "humane" than many of the other humans Marina encountered in her early years. Nature red in tooth and claw? Not always.

We Are the Wild

A 1915 illustration shows future powerful lady leader Semiramis surrounded by her family of doves.
A 1915 illustration shows future powerful lady leader Semiramis surrounded by her family of doves.
Philip and Elizabeth De Bay/Corbis via Getty Images

Romulus wasn't the only feral child of mythology to found a civilization.

In ancient Syria, a goddess named Derceto somehow offended the Greek goddess Aphrodite. Aphrodite exacted punishment by using her love powers to make Derceto lust after an underage boy. After she had her way with the lad, Derceto became pregnant and gave birth to a daughter named Semiramis. The whole seedy business overwhelmed Derceto with shame so she killed her lover, left baby Semiramis out in the wild to die and drowned herself for good measure.

Luckily for Semiramis, there was a flock of helpful doves nearby. A group of the birds warmed the baby's body by covering her with their wings while another cohort fetched milk drop by drop from nearby cows. In this way, the doves kept their human charge alive for more than a year, going so far as to steal cheese from some cowherds who then discovered the bouncing baby alive and well. Semiramis grew up to become a powerful queen and is credited by some with founding Babylon [source: Siculus].

Taken individually, myths and stories about feral children often reveal much about the time and place in which they occur (the anxieties of 18th-century Europe, the chaos of post-Soviet Russia), and they often cast light on the deplorable ways we humans can treat the small, weak and vulnerable among us. But viewed as a whole, the very idea of feral children goes to the heart of our relationship with the natural world.

In the mythologies, a wild childhood is a source of strength and magical powers. Being nurtured by animals serves as a kind of baptism by nature that grants the hero or heroine special status. It's as though such a childhood gives these children access to a wildness that we all carry with us at our core. And those who reconcile this inner wildness with the outward manifestations of human civilization are capable of great feats.

Recent studies by animal researchers reveal with increasing certitude that there is no special quality that separates us from other creatures [source: Kolbert]. That's a finding confirmed by the true stories of feral children. They remind us that we are part of nature. We too are animals, and the difference between humans and other species is one of degree, not kind. Perhaps this is one reason why we remain perennially fascinated by tales of wild kids.

Author's Note: How Feral Children Work

I think I was about 10 when my parents took me to see Francois Truffaut's "The Wild Child." Although I can't remember much of the storyline, the images made a deep impression on me. Even though the film came out in the middle of the "flower power" era, Truffaut didn't romanticize Victor's childhood. Living in tune with nature should be celebrated, but a lonely childhood is a terrible thing, no matter where you are.

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Sources

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