Those stories about children raised by animals probably aren't what you've been led to believe.
by Brian Dunning
April 18, 2017
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Today we're going to open a book by Rudyard Kipling, or Edgar Rice Burroughs, and read about that strange mythical beast we've heard about in tall tales: children raised by animals in the jungle. Perhaps lost or abandoned, these children are said to have learned all the ways of their animal families, and lived with them in comfort; and once returned to society, they seem unable or unwilling to learn to be a human. Since Romulus and Remus, raised by wolves in Roman mythology, to non-fiction accounts of children being discovered even today having lived with monkeys, feral children have always captured our imagination.
I'm going to start this episode with a bit of a spoiler, because in the case of this subject matter, knowledge of what's actually going on gives a crucial context to the case studies we're going to talk about. It is possible for very young children — not babies, but children old enough to move around and eat by themselves — to spend time only among animals. But such cases turn out to be the rarest of exceptions. The majority of so-called "feral children", it turns out, probably never spent any significant time alone with animals. They are children either born with some developmental disability, or who were neglected by their parents, or both. Due to some psychology we're going to talk about, these children will also often adopt some aspects of animal behavior, and usually suffer lifelong intellectual disability.
Edgar Rice Burroughs' fictional character Tarzan should be held up as an example of how it never happens, and cannot happen. Raised from infancy though young adulthood by gorilla parents then transported to England, Tarzan adjusted well and learned fluent behavior in both worlds. He could go back and forth from handsome and genteel viscount to wild gorilla. But in fact, although wild animals will often learn to tolerate a familiar human, we've never seen animals adopt and parent a human in any meaningful way, despite it being reported in tabloid press. Second, children who never learn to speak by about the age of five typically never learn to speak beyond a few words. Third, children who lack a nurturing relationship during their young, formative years very rarely learn to have any kind of normal human interaction.
Correction: The species of the apes who raised Tarzan was not specified in the book, but they were not gorillas. Burroughs wrote they were "A huge, fierce, terrible beast of a species closely allied to the gorilla, yet more intelligent." - BD
A story much more representative of actual feral child cases is that of Sujit Kumar, the "Chicken Boy of Fiji", promoted in the press as a boy raised by chickens and who now acts like one. Such stories are familiar to us all, and we imagine a young child roosting with the brood, flapping his arms, pecking at his food. Sujit's story was one of three cases illuminated by Mary-Ann Ochota on the Animal Planet miniseries Raised Wild. In a poor village in Fiji, Sujit was born with epilepsy and mild cerebral palsy. His mother committed suicide and his father, unable or unwilling to care for him, confined the suffering toddler in the crawlspace under the house with the chickens, and he learned to eat whatever was tossed down there. He lived there for years, though we're not sure exactly how many. As a boy he was discovered by social workers, and he was taken and permanently committed to the Samabula Old People's Home as an indigent, though he never received any treatment. They kept him tied up for more than 20 years. Clucking was his only verbalization, outbursts were his only interaction. But luck was on the horizon for Sujit. He was discovered by an Australian-Fijian businesswoman, Elizabeth Clayton, who founded The Happy Home Trust to properly care for Sujit and other at-risk Fijian children. Sujit will never learn to speak and remains profoundly intellectually disabled, but he is clean, happy, well behaved, loved, and is living out the best life he could hope for. He was not a chicken boy.
Sujit's case illustrates at least two areas of developmental psychology common to many feral child cases. First is attachment theory. In humans, it's critical to form a close attachment with a caregiver — usually the mother, but any close surrogate will do. This trait evolved because safety and security are crucial for survival in humans. Attachment deprivation disorder, as its name suggests, is what happens when the child is denied early attachment. Behavior problems, extreme anxiety, emotional unavailability, and a tendency to act out in anger all characterize this state of perpetual separation distress. Sujit was kept tied in part because of his tendency to lash out whenever anyone approached him. Whether this diagnosis applies to Sujit we can't say, but it's probably the case with others in similar situations.
Second is self-soothing behavior. Rocking the body, vocalizations, or some repetitive action with an object are a few types of self-soothing behavior that many impaired children practice, particularly autistics. With Sujit, his clucking may have been self-soothing. It was familiar and comforting behavior. Virtually all cases of supposed "feral children" exhibit some repetitive behavior like this, and it's perfectly consistent with expected psychology, and has nothing at all to do with Sujit thinking he's a chicken or anything like that.
Some very evident self-soothing behavior was exhibited by another case on Raised Wild, Oxana the "Dog Girl of Ukraine". She was taken from her alcoholic mother as a toddler and raised in orphanages. She was a difficult child, aggressive toward other kids, and had trouble socializing. She was a classic case of oppositional defiant disorder, where children are deliberately annoying to adults, teachers, and other children. When they can't get any positive loving attention, they find a way to get negative attention. Oxana did this in spades. She was so difficult that at the age of 8 she was sent to a correctional institute, where her job was to feed the dogs. She began acting like a dog — running on all fours, barking, eating off the floor — and came to do it nearly all the time. Russian tabloids called her the Dog Girl and reported that she was raised by dogs, nursed by dogs, and thought she was a dog. There was never any remote truth to that. Hers was simply an extreme case of attention seeking behavior. The doglike behavior faded around the age of 13, when hormones from puberty will often have a mitigating and calming effect on behavioral disorders.
That her doglike behavior was attention seeking was underscored when Ochota tracked her down, now a young adult and living on a farm for developmentally disabled people, and spoke with her. Oxana said that sometimes, in private, she might return to her dog behavior when she is stressed or has socialization problems. As the behavior had been a successful attention-getting tool for her when she was younger, she has come to rely on it for self-soothing. It has become a safe space where she can go and feel comforted. Today Oxana walks and talks normally, but she has a low IQ and other evident developmental disabilities.
Such cases continue today. In April of 2017, it was reported that a girl had been found in India who had lived with monkeys since birth — the "Real Life Mowgli Girl", said the tabloids. She couldn't speak and her behavior was monkey-like. But later reports from more responsible news agencies soon revealed that she was found abandoned along a road and that there was no evidence she had lived with monkeys. She remained unidentified so nothing was known of her background, but she was said to be both physically and mentally disabled.
In previous centuries, many other children were cursed with a start to life not too different from these cases. Depending on the state of psychology in their time and place, the vast majority of these children would have lived out their lives trapped in their developmentally delayed behavior, and quite likely regarded as animal-like by the locals. This is the probable genesis of most famous stories of feral children. It doesn't even matter whether the child ever did have significant exposure to animals, let alone live in the wild; they become regarded as feral animal-children nevertheless.
Even the famous story of Kamala and Amala is probably no different. Reverend J.A.L. Singh, a missionary who was fundraising for an orphanage, claimed to have found these two young girls living in a wolf den in India in 1920. He then studied them until they soon died from illnesses. The entire story is known only from a book that he wrote about their short lives. The behavior he describes is very much in line with what we've discussed; however, it should be pointed out that a 1943 review of Singh's book in the journal American Anthropologist concluded that the story was almost certainly fabricated. This conclusion was more emphatically repeated in French surgeon Serge Aroles' 2007 book Enigma of the Wolf-Children, in which he finds that both girls were severely mentally disabled, but that Singh had invented everything else.
There is even one famous case where the opposite seems to have happened: a girl lived in the forest for a long time, but was not mentally disabled and had not suffered any attachment or language deprivation. Although some sources cast doubt on the historicity of this story, the facts as given do seem largely plausible. Marie-Angélique Memmie Le Blanc was the name given to a young Native American girl captured in Canada in the early 1700s and taken to France as a slave. She escaped, and lived alone in the French forests for an unknown length of time, perhaps one year, perhaps as many as ten. She was captured again, probably as a teenager, and brought into society this time. She learned to speak, read, and write French; and eventually lived a normal independent life, and died in her 50s. If true, as its basic points do appear to be, it lends additional credibility to the theory that famous feral child cases have everything to do with disability and nothing to do with living in the wild. Marie-Angélique was (we presume) raised in a normal Native American family, and so was not deprived of either language or normal familial attachment. Well practiced at living off the land, she survived without difficulty in the French forests; and when she finally did move into French society, she was not hampered by any developmental disabilities.
Wikipedia's page on famous feral child cases lists dozens of them, and top to bottom, all of those for whom information is both sufficient and verifiable, fit the mold. Disposable children. Society's unwanted. Whether abandoned, mistreated, or neglected; whether their disabilities were the reason for the mistreatment or the result of it; such children nearly always prove to be among our neediest. These needs generally do not include adornment with a fantastical, manufactured presumed history of having lived among the animals. They best serve us not as oddities, but as reminders of where our humanitarianism can effectively be applied.
By Brian Dunning
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Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "Feral Children." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media,
18 Apr 2017. Web.
23 Oct 2017. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4567>
References & Further Reading
APA. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5). Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Publishing, 2013. 462-466.
Aroles, S. Enigma of the Wolf-Children. Paris: Editions Publibook, 2007.
Ashley Montagu, M. "Review: Wolf-Children and Feral Man." American Anthropologist. 1 Jan. 1943, Issue 45: 468-472.
Bretherton, I. "The Origins of Attachment Theory: John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth." Developmental Psychology. 1 Sep. 1992, Volume 28, Number 5: 759-775.
Emery, D. "Report: ‘Mowgli Girl’ Found Living with Monkeys in India." Urban Legend Reference Pages. Snopes.com, 8 Apr. 2017. Web. 12 Apr. 2017. <http://www.snopes.com/2017/04/07/girl-found-living-monkeys-india/>
Ochota, M. "An anthropology of wild, savage and feral children." Feral Children. Mary-Ann Ochota, 13 Jan. 2012. Web. 12 Apr. 2017. <https://raisedwild.wordpress.com>
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