“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 are victims of abuse, having grown up in the forced isolation of cages or basements.
Being skeptical by nature, I usually find such claims too incredible to be true, but there is a considerable amount of evidence and history available about feral children. While many of the historical cases are unreliable or completely fictitious, other records of feral children defy a simple explanation and are hard to ignore.
From 1724 there are records describing a naked, brownish, black-haired boy who was found running up and down in the fields of the German town of Hamelin. The “creature” was enticed into town, and once there immediately became a subject of great interest. He behaved like a trapped wild animal, eating birds and vegetables raw, and when threatened, he sat on his haunches or on all fours looking for opportunities to escape. The boy was given the name “Peter” and was soon made the possession of King George I of England, where he lived the rest of his life. During his life Peter never learned to talk, showed a complete indifference to money or sex, and was never seen laughing. However he loved music, and he was able to learn a number of menial tasks before he died in 1785.
Another example is a boy named Victor who was discovered foraging for roots and acorns in the woods near Aveyron, France in 1799. He appeared to be about eleven or twelve years old, but he didn’t speak. He was taken to Paris, where he resembled a human only in appearance. Victor behaved like an animal, he ate rotten food with pleasure, he was incapable of distinguishing hot from cold, and he spent much of his time rocking back and forth like a caged animal. He was taken into the care of the brilliant scientist Dr Jean-Marc-Gaspard Itard, who dedicated himself to the education of the boy. Victor proved to be a very difficult subject. Over the years, he only learned two terms, “lait,” and “oh dieu.” His sense of touch seemed to be far more important than his sense of sight, and he did not demonstrate an ability to distinguish right from wrong. Like Peter before him, he was indifferent to sex, and he did learn some menial tasks, such as setting a table. Victor lived the rest of his life in the care of his housekeeper, and died in 1828 at the age of forty.
One of the more mysterious cases is that of Kaspar Hauser, who was discovered in Nuremberg, Germany in 1828. He was unsteady on his feet, held a letter for a man he had never met, and only spoke the phrase “I want to be a horseman like my father is.” The letter was addressed to the captain of the 4th squadron of the 6th cavalry regiment:
I send you a lad who wishes to serve his king in the Army. He was brought to me on October 7th, 1812. I am but a poor laborer with children of my own to rear. His mother asked me to bring up the boy, and so I thought I would rear him as my own son. Since then, I have never let him go one step outside the house, so no one knows where he was reared. He, himself, does not know the name of the place or where it is.You may question him, Honoured Captain, but he will not be able to tell you where I live. I brought him out at night. He cannot find his way back. He has not a penny, for I have nothing myself. If you do not keep him, you must strike him dead or hang him.
Kaspar was about sixteen years old, but he behaved like a small child. At first, when a mirror was handed to him he would look behind it trying to find the person behind the mirror, and he burned his hand while touching a candle’s flame in curiosity. Kaspar had excellent night vision and a keen sense of smell. He detested meat and alcohol, and was offended by the smell of flowers. Unlike many of the other cases described here, Kaspar did learn much over time, eventually learning to speak enough to describe the small cage in which he had been raised, and the mysterious keeper who finally released him outside of town. But about five years after appearing from nowhere, Kaspar was assassinated. The reason for his murder might be because some believed he was the missing heir to the throne of Baden. His assassin lured him away under the pretense that they would reveal who his parents were, and stabbed him fatally in the chest. The mystery of his early life and violent death has never been satisfactorily answered.
Some feral children have been discovered in more recent history. In a modern version of the Romulus and Remus legend, two young girls were said to have been discovered under the care of a she-wolf in Godamuri, India in 1920. The girls were taken to an orphanage in Midnapore (now part of Orissa). The children, Kamala, aged eight and Amala, aged eighteen months, behaved exactly like small wild animals. They slept during the day and woke by night. They remained on all fours, enjoyed raw meat, and were given to biting and attacking other children if provoked. They could smell raw meat from a distance, and they had an acute sense of sight and hearing. The youngest child, Amala, died one year later, but Kamala lived for nine years in the orphanage until she died of illness at the age of seventeen Kamala did eventually acquire a small vocabulary, but she remained very different from other children until the time of her death.
Perhaps the saddest example of a feral child is a girl named Genie. On November 4, 1970 she was brought into a welfare office in California by her mother, who claimed that she and her daughter were victims of abuse from the woman’s husband. Genie appeared to be about six of seven years old, but when the social worker learned that Genie was actually thirteen years old, she contacted the police. It was soon revealed that Genie had been locked away in a room alone for over ten years. She had been tied to a potty-chair and left to sit alone day after day. At night, she was tied into a sleeping bag which restrained her arms, and placed in an over-sized crib with a cover made of metal screening. Often she was forgotten, and had to spend the night tied to the potty chair.
At first, people could hardly believe that Genie was thirteen years old; she weighed only 59 pounds and was 54 inches tall. While she seemed to understand a few words, the only words she could say were “stop it” and “no more.” She had a strange bunny-like walk, possibly due to malformed limbs. She held her hands up in front of her like paws and moved in a halting way. She could not chew solid food and could hardly swallow. She spat and sniffed constantly. She was not toilet-trained and could not focus her eyes beyond 12 feet.
A team of scientists known as “the Genie Team” began began working with Genie in a controversial multi-year research project. Some people felt that the experiments took away any chance for Genie to have a normal life, but the researchers made efforts to give Genie positive social contact by making her part of the head researcher’s family, taking her on outings, and letting her see the world. Because Genie proved incapable of learning language beyond very simple sentences, scientists at first thought she might be mentally handicapped; but she proved to be quite intelligent, scoring perfectly on an adult-level test that measured spatial abilities, and scoring the highest recorded results ever on tests that measure a person’s ability to make sense out of chaos and to see patterns. Research stopped after the scientists lost their funding, and Genie was moved to a series of foster homes. Today she lives anonymously in an assisted living facility somewhere in Southern California.
Despite the controversy surrounding the study of children like Genie, such research has led to breakthroughs in the education of people with learning disabilities and alternative language skills like sign language and Braille. Feral child research has also helped in developing theories about the evolution of language. Feral children also create many insights about who we are as human beings. They bring us closer to knowing what aspects of human behavior are genetic and what parts are learned. Feral children show us the importance of both our nature and the nurturing influence of other humans. These children and their struggles bring us the fragmented and haunting story that we are viewing the savage image of ourselves.