I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
We all have heard the story of Romulus and Remus being raised by a wolf, or Mowgli the jungle boy, or Tarzan reared by apes. But, that’s fiction. However, in real life there are cases of children brought up without human contact.
Peter the Wild Boy
In 1725, a boy was found alone in a forest in northern Germany. He was naked, stunted in growth, and non-verbal. Nobody knows how he came to be a feral child, but at about the age of 12 he was taken to Britain.
He was given the name Peter and was adopted as a “human pet” by George I.
(King George was a member of the German aristocracy who became England’s king through a complicated line of inheritance. He was not popular as he never bothered to learn to speak English).
George’s pet was very popular however, and, during the Age of Enlightenment, his existence generated great debate about what it meant to be human.
He did not like wearing clothes and scampered about Kensington Palace on all fours. He brought some levity and amusement to the otherwise staid court. He outlived his royal sponsors, was given a pension, and lived into his 70s on a farm.
John of Liège
About a century before Peter the Wild became a sensation in London, people in Liège, Belgium became concerned about a “beast of so strange a shape” prowling around their farms at night.
Eventually, they captured the animal and it turned out to be human. The English diplomat and scientist Sir Kenelm Digby learned of the discovery and set out to chronicle the story.
Early in the 17th century, amid the interminable religious wars, soldiers arrived in the village in which John lived. Everybody fled into a forest but the young boy plunged deeper into the woods and became separated from his family.
Digby doesn’t offer reasons for why the boy remained in the forest, living off berries and roots, until he was an adult. When the villagers finally found him he could not speak and Digby recounts how he had developed a sense of smell, akin to that of a wolf, which helped him locate food.
Unlike many feral children, John of Liège did re-integrate into society. Many youngsters who are abandonned in the wilderness at an early age can never shake off its effects.
Amala and Kamala
Two young girls, one about eight and the other 18 months, were found living with wolves in Bengal, India in 1920. Nobody knows how they came to be living in the den, or why the wolves hadn’t eaten them.
The youngsters were placed in the care of Reverend J.A.L. Singh, who ran an orphanage. He kept a diary for ten years recording his observations of the girls he named Amala and Kamala.
He said they preferred to walk on all fours and eat raw meat. They were nocturnal, had developed excellent night vision, and would howl at night.
Amala, the youngest girl, died of a kidney infection the year after coming into Rev. Singh’s care. Kamala died of tuberculosis in 1929.
There’s no doubt that Amala and Kamala existed, but the idea that they were reared by wolves is a stretch. There is only Rev. Singh’s contemporaneous account to go by and subsequent investigations say it’s more likely the girls were abandonned by their families because of congenital birth defects.
The notion of children being raised by wolves is a common myth in Indo-European culture.
The Images of Julia Fullerton-Batten
There’s little doubt about the feral nature of children depicted by Julia Fullerton-Batten. The German woman has published a series of images of abandonned children in various parts of the world. She recreated them in their supposed environments and photographed them.
Oxana Malaya’s alcoholic parents left her outside one night when she was two. She sought out the warmth of a dog kennel near her home in Ukraine. She was found in 1991 when she was eight years old. The BBC notes that “She ran on all fours, panted with her tongue out, bared her teeth, and barked. Because of her lack of human interaction, she only knew the words ‘yes’ and ‘no’.” Oxana now lives in a clinic in Odessa, working with the hospital’s farm animals.”
A Colombian woman, Marina Chapman, was kidnapped at the age of five in 1954 and then abandonned in the jungle. She survived on roots, bananas, and berries and lived with a family of Capuchin monkeys. She mimicked monkey behaviour and they groomed her as they did each other. She was found and rescued in 1964. She now lives with her husband and two daughters in England.
Sujit Kumar was found on a road in Fiji in 1978 displaying the behaviour of a chicken. Julia Fullerton-Batten tells his story: “His parents locked him in a chicken coop. His mother committed suicide and his father was murdered. His grandfather took responsibility for him but still kept him confined in the chicken coop.”
- “Ray” turned up at a German police station in September 2011. He said he had spent five years living alone in a forest and didn’t know who he was. Following a year-long investigation it was determined that “Ray” was from the Netherlands. He had become bored and decided to re-invent himself with a back story of being a feral teen. A lot of so-called feral children stories turn out to be hoaxes.
- Marie-Angélique Memmie Le Blanc was likely a Meskwaki Indian from what is now Wisconsin. Sometime in the early 18th century, she was kidnapped and taken to France as a slave. However, she escaped and vanished into the woods in the champagne region. In 1731, the “Savage Girl of Champagne” was found. She was immensely strong, ate raw meat, and spoke no language. She was given her name and slowly socialized.
- Hiroo Onoda was an Imperial Japanese intelligence officer during World War II who refused to believe his country surrendered and the conflict was over. He went feral at the age of 22 and hid in jungle in the Philippines for almost three decades. He was eventually persuaded by his former commanding officer to return to civilization.
- “Feral Children: Lore of the Wild Child.” Benjamin Radford, LiveScience, November 28, 2013.
- “Peter the Wild Boy’s Condition Revealed 200 Years after His Death.” Maev Kennedy, The Guardian, March 20, 2011.
- “When This Feral Child Was Found, His Story Threatened the Hierarchy Between Human and Animals.” Laura Smith, Timeline, November 3, 2017.
- “Feral: The Children Raised by Wolves.” Fiona Macdonald, BBC Culture, October 12, 2015.
- “Memmie le Blanc: A History of an 18th Century Feral Child, archeologist71, The Daily Beagle, April 15, 2013.
© 2019 Rupert Taylor