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A feral or wild child is a child alleged to have been raised by non-human parents. A variety of feral children appear in mythology and folklore and anecdotal reports from various sources. There are also a number of hoaxes that have appeared throughout history, often as a way of bilking money out of somebody.
The more reliable a record of an alleged "feral child" is, the likelier it becomes that the child at issue is simply a victim of extreme parental neglect, although there is sometimes some overlap between the two. These neglected children often fail to learn human language and social skills, and if they are not discovered until after their prime years for acquiring these skills may end up profoundly disabled for the rest of their lives. It is likely that the vocalization of these neglected children gave rise to legends that they had been not raised by humans.
Despite the popularity of the subject, truly feral children are extremely rare. The first account of one that has been definitively considered authentic was that of the 18th-century child Marie-Angélique Memmie Le Blanc, who is also the only one to have managed to reintegrate into society. More recently there is the case of Oxana Malaya, who, as a result of gross neglect from her parents and then the orphanage she lived in, grew to bond and identify with dogs more than humans. There are also a very few—we may be thankful—other undisputed cases from various parts of the world. In all likelihood, a young child with zero human contact would not survive in all but the most forgiving and abundant natural environments, as they have no knowledge of how to hunt or gather, identify safe and dangerous plants, fungi, animals, and water sources, build a shelter resistant to cold, heat, rain, wind, and venomous, harmful, and disease-carrying animals, or create and control fire. There's simply no reason a small child who would ordinarily be utterly dependent on their parents could survive without the care, protection, and guidance of another human.
Mythical feral children
Stories of children raised by wild animals are common in folklore and mythology. Gilgamesh's companion Enkidu was said to have been raised by other animals; he is described as a hairy wild man. Romulus and Remus, legendary founders of Rome, were also said to have been nursed by wolves.
Fictional feral children include Kipling's Mowgli from The Jungle Book, and Edgar Rice Burroughs's Tarzan. These fictional feral children have an easier time than the few reliable reported "feral" children and often take on aspects of the noble savage.
Alleged feral children
Tales of alleged feral children tend to resolve more clearly into actual cases of child abuse. Oftentimes, authors will simply lump the two categories together, as the behaviors they exhibit tend to be very similar. Doing so condenses the information into one place, which can be helpful, but has also added considerable confusion to the public's mind as to the proper terminology for a given case.
One celebrated incident involves an early nineteenth-century German boy named Kaspar Hauser. He was said to have been raised half-wild in the woods, but it appears that he was, in fact, locked in a cellar room during his youth; the authenticity of his story is unclear at best. According to contemporary accounts, Hauser never was completely integrated into human society and died under mysterious and violent circumstances. Another alleged feral child was Victor of Aveyron, who was found in the woods in 1800 unable to speak and badly scarred. Victor never learned to speak, and some have speculated that he was autistic as well as neglected. A fictionalized version of his life became the Truffaut film L'Enfant sauvage.
By far the most famous case in modern times is that of Genie, who from the age of 20 months to 13 years and 7 months spent her life locked in a room without any human contact. Scientists took a particular interest in her due to her total lack of language or socialization, especially because her discovery took place right as the debate about the ideas of Noam Chomsky about the innateness of language and Eric Lenneberg's critical period hypothesis reached a fever pitch. A huge amount of information on language development and neuroscience, especially hemispheric dominance, came out of the scientists' extensive testing, and her case, in turn, led to several more highly important studies in these fields. Genie herself, though, never made anything approaching a full recovery from her childhood, and for years after the conclusion of the case study ended up being subjected to still more forms of very extreme abuse. Several authors have written about her case; Nova did a multiple Emmy Award-winning documentary on her, and the film Mockingbird Don't Sing is based on her case; none, especially the documentary, is for the faint of heart.
Marina Chapman, born in Colombia around 1950, claimed to have been raised by capuchin monkeys from the age of about 4 to 9. She was then sold to a brothel before being rescued and ultimately sent to work as a nanny in England where she seems to have lived a normal life. There is controversy over the accuracy of her story, with many experts accepting it but others suggesting she may have false memories.
Language deprivation experiments
It would be an interesting experiment to raise children without adult contact to see what happens and whether the children acquired language, reason, and social graces. It's also not particularly nice and is therefore known today as The Forbidden Experiment. However, it has apparently been tried several times throughout history. Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II and King of Scotland James IV reportedly both tried it, though they had silent or mute nurses and nannies to care for the children. Herodotus says Psamtik I of Egypt also performed the experiment, and the 16th century Mughal emperor Akbar apparently did it too. The results do not seem to have been very successful.
- A blog about Feral Children
- Article on Livescience.com written by Benjamin Radford
- A website that lists real-life and fictional cases of feral children
- Some more real-life cases of feral children