Theophanes is a New-England-based blogger, traveler, writer, photographer, sculptor, and lover of cats.
We all have heard stories of feral children, those that have been raised by wild animals, but few of us believe that some of them could be true. Romulus and Remus might have been the oldest recorded feral child story. They were the founders of ancient Rome and people then believed that they were literally raised by a she-wolf who suckled them as infants. Later stories like that of The Jungle Book gave rise to the term Mowgli Syndrome which is still sometimes used to describe these poor babes.
The latter two stories are flights of fancy but there are real genuine cases of feral children. In fact the term feral children is a psychological term used to describe a child that has grown up with little to no interaction with humans and often times it is animals that fill the void this causes. Below I have decided to briefly describe some of the more well known cases.
Victor - The First Medically Studied Feral Child
In 1797 hunters near the town of Saint-Sernin-sur-Rance in France spotted a savage child running wild through the woods. He was stark naked, had matted hair, and had absolutely no interest in allowing himself to be captured by them. Still they pursued him and eventually got him entangled in some nets. They brought him to the local town where he was displayed. The boy didn't speak any words and behaved much as a wild animal would. He was not happy in captivity and escaped back into the wilderness where he stayed until 1800. At that point he wandered out of the woods on his own and was taken in by the locals. They thought he was around twelve years of age. His body was marred with many scars and he seemed indifferent to cold and pain, playing nude in the snow and delving his hand into a boiling pot of water to retrieve a potato without even flinching.
Victor was taken in by a series of scientists who wished to study him during the age of enlightenment. They wanted to know if he was more human or more animal and what made him that way. At the time they associated being civilized and being human as being able to use language. Pierre Joseph Bonnaterre tried to teach him to speak but the boy only learned how to say "milk" and "Oh, God." It was speculated he was left or lost in the woods when he was four or five years old, living perhaps seven years in isolation. By this time he had lost the ability to discern emotion from the pitch and tone of a voice. It was theorized that this peculiarity had preceded and possibly caused his abandonment. Could he have just been an autistic boy? Or was he a perfectly normal boy damaged by the isolation he endured?
Eventually Jean Marc Gaspard Itard, a medical student, got his chance to live with and teach the strange boy. Itard wanted to see if Victor had the two characteristics that he believed separated man from animals: language and empathy. Victor never learned any more words but years after Itard had lost interest he had a chance to show his true empathetic nature. By this time he was living with Itard's recently widowed maid Mme Guérin. Although Victor probably didn't understand what had happened he picked up on the fact he had made Mme Guérin cry when he placed three plates on the table for dinner and after seeing this he removed one of the plates. This suggests that he did have empathy and at least some form of cognitive reasoning even without the use of language. He died at around the age of 40 still in Mme Guérin's care.
John Ssebunya was a child of tragic circumstance. He lived in a small Ugandan village and is suspected of having been the victim of physical abuse. When his father murdered his mother the then three year old disappeared into the woods. Since his father had willfully disappeared no one thought to look for the small child, believing he was either murdered as well or taken with his abuser. It wasn't until three years later another villager was out picking up firewood when she spotted a naked boy perched in the trees with some monkeys. Ssebunya was captured and brought back to civilization where he eventually learned how to speak and read at a kindergarten level. He claimed to have spent three years with a troop of monkeys that he claimed fed him, led him to water, and kept him safe. These same monkeys inspired him to climb trees and crawl on all fours, scratch at people, and scream.
Biologists and animal psychologists believe the monkeys were taking care of Ssebunya by accident. The monkeys in question belong to a "trash species," that is a species that only eats half of what it harvests before throwing the rest to the ground. It may have seemed to the young child they were doing this to feed him but in reality he probably was just taking advantage of the situation without knowing it. He still claims he played with the monkeys but a missing toe might reveal the monkeys weren't always keen on playing back.
Ssebunya was a rare case in which he found happiness in life. He was adopted by a local family, raised, went to school, and is currently singing in a choir. He's in his twenties now and although he'll always be mentally at a kindergarten level he seems to have done well for himself.
Prava - The Bird Boy of Russia
In 2008 in Volgograd Russia a rather strange case came into the news about a 31 year old woman who had just relinquished custody of her 7 year old, a boy named Prava, into the care of the state. During the boy's childhood his mother felt no real need to ever talk to him or bring him out of the house. Instead he lived in a two room apartment amongst many cages of domestic birds. Because of this he never learned how to speak as humans do he learned how to sing like the birds. Social workers claimed when they tried to talk to him all he did was chirp and act agitated when they clearly couldn't understand what he was trying to get across to them. The boy was well nourished and never beaten but still faces a long and tedious life without the use of human language.
Russian Dog Children
Oxana Malaya was a Russian girl who had the great misfortune to be born to a set of drunk parents that didn't care at all for her well being. Her mother wanted a boy and was disappointed with the birth, her father was just too drunk to give a damn. When she was around three years of age her parents left her outside for the night. In order to survive she curled up with a pack of stray dogs in a shed behind her house. She lived with them for the next five years eating what they ate, sleeping when they slept, and picking up all the mannerisms of a dog. A concerned neighbor eventually called social services in 1991 when she was eight years old. By then the girl was running around on all fours, howling, barking, sniffing at food, jumping on people and displaying the natural characteristics of a semi-tame dog. The first attempt to rescue her was met with the child charging them on all fours barking and growling with a whole pack backing her up. The second rescue attempt was more successful. At the time she could only say "yes" and "no."
Currently Oxana is living in a home for the mentally disabled. She has learned a limited amount of speech and now walks on two feet and behaves as a human. She helps to take care of the cows and other animals where she lives and states that she is still happiest in the company of dogs. The most disturbing part of the story is probably the fact she's not the only one. Russia has many impoverished areas overrun with feral dogs and up two million children there are homeless. In 1996 four year old Ivan Mishukov was cornered in a kitchen where he bit, scratched, and snarled at his rescuers. Ivan also found a permanent human home and adjusted pretty well to human society. In Siberia in 2004 a seven year old boy was found again living with a dog. Andrei Tolstyk was his name and he had been living with the dog since he was three months old having first been abandoned by his mother and then his father. He never learned to speak though he eventually learned some sign language.
Wild Peter was probably the first modern documented case of a feral child. He was a boy of around 12 who showed up in Hamlin Germany in 1724. No one really figured out how long he'd been living on his own or if he had help from animals. Either way he climbed trees with ease, preferred to eat bark instead of bread, and most of the time acted like a caged wild animal in search of escape. He only learned two words in his lifetime: Peter and King George. He ultimately became the property of King George and lived into his early 70's. Strangely enough he never laughed, had a complete indifference to money, but loved music.
In the year 250 Procopius recorded a story about a boy suckled by sheep when his family fled from the Gothic War. Returning villagers named him Aegisthus and claimed he never learned how to talk. in 1672 a similar child was captured, a boy eventually dubbed the Irish Sheep Boy. He was around the age of 16 and claimed to have ran away from his parents as a small child, only returning to society when hunters caught him in a net. He ate only grass but even then it was only the particular grass his herd of sheep were accustomed to eating. At first he only bleated like a sheep.
Children have been recorded throughout history being raised with just about every kind of social herd or pack forming animal with occasional accounts being attributed to more solo animals like bears. As always many of these stories end up just that - stories, but there is always a case here and there that do turn out to be true and through very trying circumstances these children endure. Please visit back soon where I hope to write a complimentary article about feral children who survived without animals.
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Andrew Petrou from Brisbane on September 18, 2015:
Just saw a documentary about Marina Chapman, a woman who claims she was raised by monkeys between the ages of 5 and 10 in the jungle of South America. This is belief was tested by scientists and modern tech and found to have quite a bit of substance to it.
I am curious about how such people survived the insects, most notably the mosquitoes. Any info on this?
Austin Padgett on November 07, 2014:
what are your sources? I'm writing a research paper on feral children and i was looking for a little more info. thank you.
Theophanes Avery (author) from New England on October 23, 2014:
Thank you, I am glad you enjoyed it.
Mikhail Blacer from Iloilo City, Philippines on October 22, 2014:
Great hub. Enjoyed reading it!
imani on December 29, 2012:
this is cool.
Dolores Monet from East Coast, United States on July 27, 2012:
Why is the idea of feral children so captivating? From Mowgli to Tarzan, we just love the concept that animals would take care of a child or a baby. But the sheep child? I don't think a person could live off grass. Voted up and tweeted!
Ginger Ruffles on June 26, 2012:
Fascinating that these kids survived!