Feral Children: Living With Beasts
A feral child (feral, – wild or undomesticated) is a human child who has lived isolated from human contact from a very young age, and has no (or little) experience of human care, loving or social behavior, and, crucially, of human language. Feral children are confined by humans (often parents), brought up by animals, or live in the wild in isolation. Just over a hundred incidences have been reported in English, though more incidences may have been unreported. These cases are considered interesting from a psychological and a sociological perspective. When completely brought up by animals the feral child exhibits behaviors (within physical limits) almost entirely like those of the particular care-animal, such as its variety of instincts, fear of or indifference to humans.
“In all my travels, the only time I ever slept deeply was when I was with wolves… The days with my wolf family multiplied. I have no idea how many months I spent with them but I wanted it to last forever – it was far better than returning to the world of my own kind. Today, though most memories of my long journey are etched in tones of grey, the time spent with the wolves… is drenched in colour. Those were the most beautiful days I had ever experienced.” Quote from Misha Defonseca, a Jewish orphan who, from the ages of seven to 11, wandered through occupied Europe in World War II, living on wild berries, raw meat and food stolen from farmhouses, and occasionally teaming up with wolves.
Well Known Cases of Feral Children
The first really famous feral child was Wild Peter, “a naked, brownish, black-haired creature” captured near Helpensen in Hanover in 1724, when he was about 12. He climbed trees with ease, lived off plants and seemed incapable of speech. He refused bread, preferring to strip the bark from green twigs and suck on the sap; but he eventually learnt to eat fruit and vegetables. He was presented at court in Hanover to George I, and taken to England, where he was studied by leading men of letters. He spent 68 years in society, but never learnt to say anything except “Peter” and “King George”, although his hearing and sense of smell were said to be “particularly acute”.
The Wild Girl of Champagne
The wild girl of Champagne had probably learned to speak before her abandonment, for she is a rare example of a wild child learning to talk coherently – although she could remember little of her feral existence, which she thought had lasted two years. When coaxed from a tree in Songi near Chalons in the French district of Champagne in 1731, she was aged about 10, barefoot, and dressed in rags and skins with a gourd leaf on her head. In a pouch she carried a cudgel and a knife inscribed with indecipherable characters. She shrieked and squeaked, and was so dirty (or possibly painted) that she was mistaken for a black child. Her diet consisted of birds, frogs and fish, leaves, branches and roots. Given a rabbit, she immediately skinned and devoured it.
“Her fingers and in particular her thumbs, were extraordinarily large,” according to a contemporary witness, the famous scientist Charles Marie de la Condamine. She is said to have used her thumbs to dig out roots and swing from tree to tree like a monkey. She was a very fast runner and had phenomenally sharp eyesight. When the Queen of Poland, the mother of the French queen, passed through Champagne in 1737 to take possession of the Duchy of Lorraine, she heard about the girl and took her hunting, where she outran and killed rabbits. She was given the name Marie-Angélique Memmie Le Blanc, and later eked out an existence in Paris by making artificial flowers and hawking her memoirs (written by Madame Hecquet). She died, like most of the feral children, in obscurity.
John Ssebunya – the Ugandan Monkey-Boy
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 and fed hot food, which made him very ill for three days. He had many wounds and scales, and a lot of hair. His knees were almost white from walking on them. His nails were very long and curled round and he wasn’t house-trained. The villagers removed tapeworms from his behind, some of them reportedly 4ft long.
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. After John was discovered, his father was traced, but was not interested in caring for the wild boy. A few weeks later the father was found hanged, a victim of civil unrest. After his mother was murdered John had fled to the jungle, apparently terrified he would be next.
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. “I didn’t sleep very well,” he remembers, “head down and bottom in the air… or I would climb a tree.” Some sources say John’s guardians were Vervet monkeys (Cercopithecus æthiops); others say they were black-and-white Colobus monkeys (Colobus guereza).
The boy was adopted by Paul and Molly Wasswa, who run the Kamuzinda Christian Orphanage in Masaka, 100 miles from Kampala. He has been studied by a host of experts, who are convinced that he is a genuine feral child. When left with a group of monkeys he avoided eye contact and approached them from the side with open palms, in classic simian fashion. He has a strange lopsided gait and pulls his lips right back when he smiles. He tends to greet people with a powerful hug, in the way that monkeys greet each other. He has, however, learned to wink – something a monkey would never do.
He is now about 21 years old with a fine singing voice, and in October 1999 went to Britain as part of the 20-strong Pearl of Africa Children’s Choir, run by Mr Wasswa’s organisation AFRICA (Association for Relief and Instruction of Children in Africa).
The Gazelle Boy
Jean-Claude Auger, an anthropologist from the Basque country, was travelling 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”.
Auger found a small oasis of thorn bushes and date palms and waited for the herd. Three days later, his patience was rewarded, but it took several more days of sitting and playing his galoubet (Berber flute) to win the animals’ confidence. Eventually, the child approached him, showing “his lively, dark, almond-shaped eyes and a pleasant, open expression… he appears to be about 10 years old; his ankles are disproportionately thick and obviously powerful, his muscles firm and shivering; a scar, where a piece of flesh must have been torn from the arm, and some deep gashes mingled with light scratches (thorn bushes or marks of old struggles?) form a strange tattoo.”
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. Even in deepest sleep he seemed constantly alert, raising his head at unusual noises, however faint, and sniffing around him like the gazelles.
Auger describes how he gradually learnt to decipher the significance of every gazelle gesture and movement, which the boy shared with the herd. There was a complex code of stamping to indicate distance of food sources; and social interaction through exchanges of licking and sniffing, with the boy emitting a kind of mute cry from the back of his throat with his mouth closed. He had one word: kal (khah), meaning stone or rock. One senior female seemed to act as his adoptive mother. 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.
Two years after his stay with the herd, Auger returned with a Spanish army captain and his aid-de-camp, who kept their distance to avoid frightening the herd off. Curiosity eventually overcame them and they chased the boy in a jeep to see how fast he could run. This frightened him off altogether, though he reached a speed of 32-34mph, with continuous leaps of about 13ft. Olympic sprinters can reach only 25mph in short bursts.
His pursuers failed to keep up across the rough terrain, and eventually the herd disappeared as the jeep sustained a puncture. 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. Auger took no photographs of the boy, being more concerned with protecting him from human interference than providing evidence to convince the sceptics of his existence.
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.
Most Recent Finds
February 2008, Prava, the Bird 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.
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
2006: Arthur Zverev, the Wolf-boy
Social workers took three weeks to catch Arthur Zverev, who barks and runs on all fours.
A four-year-old boy who was raised by wild dogs and cats was found living on the streets. He would drink from puddles, roamed the rubbish tip with the pack of wild animals, cuddling up to them in the evenings.
Information and Observations on Feral Children
Many wild children were extraordinarily fast quadrupedal runners – almost ‘superhuman’. We might recall that Atalanta, the bear-suckled heroine of Greek myth, was the most swift-footed of mortals. When first captured, Memmie Le Blanc moved with “a sort of flying gallop” and could out-run game; and the Saharan gazelle-boy was clocked at 7mph faster than the best Olympic sprinter.
A facility for tree-climbing was another common trait. Peter, Memmie, Victor and the Ugandan John Sesebunya were all agile arborialists; the last three were cornered up trees before their capture. The wolf-child of Overdyke in Holland, abandoned during the Napoleonic wars, climbed trees with wonderful agility to get eggs and birds, which he devoured raw. ‘Tarzancito’, the wild boy of El Salvador (1935) slept in trees to avoid predators.
A number of ferals were hirsute, including Jean de Liège (17th cent), the second Lithuanian bear-child (1669), the Kranenburg girl (1717), the wild boy of Kronstadt (fl.1784), the second Hasunpur wolf-child (1843), the Shajampur child (1898), and the Naini Lal bear-child (1914). A young man caught in woods near Riga, Latvia, in November 1936 was allegedly “covered in long thick hair”.
“Over time all my senses were heightened – my vision, my hearing, even my sense of smell,” wrote Misha Defonseca, the Jewish orphan who wandered through Nazi-occupied Europe. “That hypersensitivity stayed with me for a very long time after I left the forest”.
Feral senses were often more acute than those of socialised humans. Kaspar Hauser and many of the Indian wolf-children, including the Midnapore girls, could see well in the dark. Jean de Liège could recognise his warden by smell from a distance; Kamala could smell meat from one end of the orphanage garden – a compound of three and a half acres – to the other; and many wild children sniffed at objects in the way that cats and dogs do. Victor of Aveyron, the first Sultanpur child (1847), Kamala and Amala had an unusually sharp sense of hearing.
Many wild children had a keen ear for music. Peter was delighted by music, and would clap and sing. Memmie was a perfect mimic of songbirds such as the nightingale. The Overdyke boy named each bird by imitating its cry. A naked youth aged about 15, caught in woods near Uzitza, Yugoslavia, in 1934, could mimic animals and birds as well as run amazingly fast. The Turkish bear-girl responded to music, sometimes bursting into wild, unintelligible songs. John Sesebunya sings in a choir.
Another phenomenon is the wild children’s insensitivity to extremes of temperature, a characteristic shared with desert nomad and gypsy children. This was seen in the Irish sheep-boy, Victor, the Kronstadt boy, the first Sultanpur child, the Midnapore girls, and the Saharan gazelle-boy. The latter was seen to grab a handful of hot embers and hold them for some time without apparent pain, while Victor took potatoes out of a pot of boiling water. At least eight ferals angrily tore off any clothing they were dressed in.
Hardly any of them learnt to laugh or smile and their libidos seemed stunted. Kaspar confused dreams with reality and spoke of himself in the third person. Neither Victor nor Kaspar could recognise their reflections in a mirror; the Turkish bear-girl would sit for hours in her room gazing at herself in a mirror. Auger observed the gazelle-boy looking at his reflection in a pool of water as if it were a stranger.
Many academics regarded the whole phenomenon of feral children with scepticism. Most of the children never learnt to speak, while those that did could recall very little of their wild existence. Similarly, the circumstances of their discovery were by their nature anecdotal, taking place far from habitation and often depending on the testimony of a solitary witness. Many accounts of feral children have been embroidered with fantastic details, inviting academic disdain. Dismissing testimony as superstition and folklore became commonplace in 19th century science, to the detriment of folk wisdom and forteana.
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