Feral Children in Fact and Fiction

February 10, 2016

Legends from around the world tell of children raised by wild animals including wolves, bears, and apes. The feral child is common in myth and folklore, dating back at least to Romulus and Remus, the twin brothers of Roman mythology rescued from certain death and raised by a wolf. The feral child image evokes a strong romanticism for many people, and this was especially true at the turn of the last century. Edgar Rice Burroughs, for example, created Tarzan, a boy raised by African apes, in the early 1900s and his character remains popular in books and film a century later.

Over the centuries many stories of feral children have been told; fortunately, virtually all of them have later been revealed as proven hoaxes. A story recounted in Mysteries of the Unexplained shows that feral children date back many centuries: “On July 27, 1724, the boy who came to be called Wild Peter was captured near the German town of Hamelin. He appeared to be about 12 years old. He could not speak and ate only vegetables and grass and sucked the juice of green stalks; at first he rejected bread. The story of the wild boy spread, and in February 1726 King George I of England sent for him.”

The boy became a celebrated case, and turned out to be more influential than he could have imagined: the French political philosopher Rousseau pointed to this feral child as an example of a “natural man,” one untainted by modern life or learning, and wrote about him. However questions were raised about his story: “a German naturalist and scholar later examined all the earliest documents on Wild Peter and concluded that he must have lived with people until shortly before he was captured, because he wore a rag around has neck and parts of his body were pale rather than tanned, suggesting that he had worn breeches [trousers].” The stories about him–much like Mark Twain’s premature death–were greatly exaggerated.

Another celebrated account of feral children came from a reverend named J.A.L. Singh, who discovered two young girls (one about eighteen months old, the other about eight years old) in Bengal, India, raised by wolves in the 1920s. Singh claimed that the girls, who he named Amala and Kamala, preferred raw meat, walked on all fours, and would howl at the moon like a wolf. He tried, with limited success, to get them to speak and walk upright. The case aroused great interest, and several books were written about their mysterious case, including one on child development. In the strange case of the Indian girls Amala and Kamala, for example, later research concluded that though the girls did exist, they had not been raised by wolves but instead suffered from developmental and birth defects. There was no independent corroboration of Singh’s claims (we only have his diary), and it is generally accepted that he faked or exaggerated his interaction with the feral children.

A 1997 memoir written by a young Jewish girl claimed she escaped the Holocaust into the forest where she was raised by a pack of wolves. The book, Misha: A Memoir of the Holocaust Years, was a best-seller before finally being exposed as a fictional hoax. Feral children–if they ever truly existed–are a relic of the past. Except in the most remote regions of the world (such as tribes in the Amazon jungle), certificates are issued for live births and it’s unlikely that a child would be born and somehow completely disappear into the wild to be raised by animals. Even if a family lived in the remote jungle and both parents died suddenly, the lost infant or child would likely starve to death (or be eaten by wild animals instead of being nurtured into adolescence by them). Still, the archetype is a powerful and venerable one.