There are many contemporary stories -- both in the tabloids and the respectable press -- about the possible existence of feral children. They range from the purely fictional (Bat Boy, the not-real half-man half-bat who graced the cover of supermarket checkout staple The Weekly News for years) to the probably real (John, a boy who spent some time with monkeys in Uganda, and could supposedly communicate with them, though it wasn’t clear if to what extent they understood each other).
In both the real and true-ish stories, these children are often depicted as unsullied by the evils of society -- they are pure-hearted leaders and warriors who remind us how alienated from nature the rest of us are.
This story trope even has a name: "the noble savage."
The concept emerged in Romantic writing in the 19th century. Political philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau popularized the concept, using it to argue that society corrupted man, and that a person living in the wild would “not know good and evil…[because of] the peacefulness of their passions, and their ignorance of vice.” In modern culture, the noble savage is a pretty popular type. There’s Mowgli, of course, and Tarzan, but also Princess Mononoke and Splash. There are also ancient examples, like Enkidu in the Epic of Gilgamesh, from before a time that we even had the term.
The real life examples of this story are often sad and far more complicated than a simple case of “man versus wild.” And they don’t work as tidy, heart-swelling metaphors for humanity.
Michael Newton has a ton of these stories up his sleeve. He wrote a terrific and slightly mad book Savage Girls and Wild Boys that recounts some of the more surprising real life cases of "feral children" from history. I emailed Newton in Holland, where he teaches English literature.
“The term 'feral child' is pretty unfortunate,” Newton wrote me. “It already implies that the child in question is more of a 'beast' than a human being. Even more unfortunately [is] the political debate in Britain started over the last ten years to refer to underprivileged and criminal youths as feral.”
Even though some people find the term dehumanizing and offensive, Newton says that when it comes to children who have been raised by animals, there isn’t really an alternative. (For the sake of clarity and brevity, we’ll use it throughout this article.)
Two of the most talked-about cases of feral children have a number of similarities. But one story is a tragedy, and the other is a not-quite triumph. The differences between the two tell us something interesting about the line we tend to draw between man and wild.
The Wild Child of Aveyron
In 1797, a boy was discovered in the woods in southern France. He was found, naked and filthy, by some hunters who brought him to a local village. He escaped back to the woods, but returned to civilization on his own three years later. French authorities placed him in a hospital; he was believed to be 12 years old, and it was thought that he had lived among the animals since he was a young child.
Parisian doctors came to see the boy, ostensibly to examine him, though in reality they were rubbernecking, “eager to see what might be a ‘noble savage,' a representative of a lost Eden,” as Newton writes in Savage Girls. What they found was quite a shock. Again according to Newton, the boy was “dumb, slovenly, incurious and unresponding.” He walked unevenly, a habit developed from years spent crawling on all fours. He had a well-developed sense of hearing and smell, but an under-developed sense of self-awareness: when handed a mirror, he would look for the child standing behind it, unable to recognize his own reflection.
A physician named Jean Marc Gaspard Itard took him under his care. He named the child Victor, and began working with him at a hospital for deaf-mutes, before moving him into his own home. Itard was a total optimist -- he believed that with the right care, Victor could become a "normal" member of society. (Some think he took on the case as part of a dare.) Itard believed that language was the key to Victor’s development, so he worked out a kind of “action language” with the boy.
For a time, Victor showed real signs of progress. He learned simple French words such as lait, which means milk, and he figured out how to order the letters of the alphabet. But these breakthroughs were small, and Victor didn’t progress much further. Once the boy hit puberty, his behavior became fitful. He bit people, including his handlers. He was poorly equipped to handle his own developing sexuality. As Newton writes in Savage Girls, once “puberty had come to Victor…Itard did his best to cool his charge’s lust, giving him cold baths, a soothing diet and violent exercise, but it was no good.”
The doctor eventually concluded that Victor’s case was too much work for too little payoff. Describing Itard’s conclusion, Newton writes in his book, “Either the boy must end in an asylum, or he might just procure a little education, though hardly enough to secure any happiness for him.” Victor moved in with Itard’s governess, a nurse named Madame Guerin, in 1810, and Itard visited him less and less until Victor’s death eighteen years later.
In 1994, an 8-year-old girl was found in the Ukraine. She was crawling on all fours and barking, roaming with a pack of wild dogs. The girl was living in the woods near her childhood home, and someone noticed her and called the police. When the authorities arrived, they had to distract the dogs with treats -- she had become so bonded to the pack, they had to be bribed to let her go. The girl’s name was Oxana Malaya, and she had been separated from her parents five years earlier.
As the story goes, Oxana was abandoned by her (reportedly alcoholic) family when she was a toddler, and was absorbed into a pack of wild dogs who frequented their backyard. After she was taken in by the state in 1994, it’s believed that she bounced between psychiatric institutes and group homes.
In 2006, TV producers at Channel 4 in the U.K. became interested in her story, and got funding to visit her in Odessa. They wanted an expert perspective on Oxana’s mental state, so they recruited a British child psychologist named Lyn Fry from a media list.
Fry is not the only foreigner to have seen Malaya -- there have been a number of newspaper articles, and a recent Animal Planet documentary made about her case -- but by Fry’s account, she is one of the few researchers outside the Ukraine to have spent time with her.
When Fry met Malaya, she was able to administer a couple of simple quizzes, designed to evaluate her level of cognitive development. And though Fry admits that her experiments didn’t conform to the rigor of the scientific method (“We were there to make a television program,” says Fry, “it was all very basic, nothing thorough.”), she did uncover a few surprising findings.
She gave Malaya something called the Wechsler test, an intelligence test similar to IQ. The Wechsler scale assigns an "intelligence age" to a person based on how well they do at certain tasks like drawing or simple math.
“She was 23 when I saw her,” says Fry. “And, according to the Wechsler test, she could draw at the level of a five or six year old.”
Granted, most 23-year-olds should be able to draw like, well, 23-year-olds, but given Malaya’s history, Fry was impressed.
Encouraged, she gave Malaya more small challenges to see how she dealt with language as a communication tool. According to Fry, many feral children through history have developed the ability to imitate some words, but haven’t figured out grammar or syntax. “I wanted to see what her prepositions were like,” she recalls.
“So I got the interpreter to say things like ‘put the ducks behind the cow,’ or ‘the dog is under the table.’” According to Fry, Malaya had no trouble understanding those. “That was surprising.”
But Fry was most impressed when she asked Malaya to do something that had eluded poor Victor. “I asked her to look in a mirror, and I asked if she could identify herself.” She could, and in fact, “she thought it was bizarre that I even asked,” says Fry.
Oxana Malaya, courtesy of Lyn Fry
The Tale of Two Children
So, why was Malaya’s development so different from Victor’s? There are a number of theories. The most probable involves something called “the critical development period.” Many researchers believe there is a period in childhood development when kids need to hear language so that they can appreciate how it is used to coordinate interactions. Depending on whom you ask, the critical period for learning language might end at the age of five, or it might end around the time someone hits puberty -- the exact details have been a topic of debate among child psychologists for some time.
It’s always been hard to prove empirically that such a period exists. One piece of evidence supporting critical development is the ability of adults to recover language after losing it through a language disorder called aphasia. Usually triggered by a stroke or some other brain injury, aphasia is when a person suddenly loses the ability to speak, read, or comprehend language. Basically, it’s wiping the slate clean in someone’s mind.
We can draw an equivalency between aphasiacs and feral children -- both have the daunting task of trying to completely construct language from scratch. As linguist James Huford notes in a 1990 paper,
Before puberty, a child struck with aphasia has a reasonable chance of recovering and developing normal language, the recovery possibly taking some years. But adults so afflicted seldom recover language in full, and as a rule never recover basic verbal capacities for communication beyond the level achieved three to five months after the impairment. People whose language ability is destroyed after puberty seem to have diminished resources for rebuilding it.
If this theory holds, then losing language altogether after puberty means that you can’t re-learn it. Why? Because you’ve passed the critical development period, that time when your brain is supple enough to even accept the building blocks necessary to becoming a language learner.
This may sound totally bizarre, especially given that I wrote about adult foreign language learning on this very blog a few months ago. But learning a first language and learning a second are completely different tasks. When you learn a foreign language, at least you know what a language is, that it has verbs and nouns and punctuation. When you are learning a first language, the theory goes, you have none of that, which makes it almost impossible for an inflexible older brain to process.
While Victor could imitate certain French words and phrases (he would yell “Mon Dieu!,” shadowing Madame Guerin), he never understood syntax, and couldn’t develop sentences. He learned patterns, but never the actual structure of speech. These clues suggest that it’s possible Victor missed the critical development window.
By contrast, baby Oxana probably absorbed something from being around adults who talked and interacted, since she didn’t join the dog pack until she was three or four. By the time the dogs found her, she was old enough to have picked up the building blocks of language.
Of course, all of this is speculation. Many experts, including Fry, say it's hard to understand feral children and the effects of their experience, without proper tests to evaluate their cognitive development. While minimal tests were done on Malaya, no one can know the truth about Victor's condition for sure -- a conclusion reached by many doctors at the time (with nods of agreement by some contemporaries) is that Victor may have had a serious learning disability and that researchers incorrectly assumed that his time with animals was solely to blame for his condition.
Today, Malaya lives at an adult “therapeutic community,” a farm in Odessa, Ukraine, where she milks cows and helps with chores. Developmentally, Fry says Malaya has the cognitive ability of a five- or six-year-old, and she doesn’t see her progressing much further.
Feral children have been called “the forbidden experiment.” Think about it: putting a vulnerable child into the harsh wilderness without any preparation, with the vague hope that some benevolent animals would protect and tutor the kid? It would be polite to call that child abuse.
Yet we’re fascinated by the naturally occurring cases, when there is no guilt because it wasn’t intentional on the part of the researchers. And we are deeply fascinated by lives that seem to confront our most core beliefs about what it means to be human. Maybe when we finally meet face to face with a wild child, we see a glimpse of humanity that makes it impossible not to feel empathy, not to see something in a forest boy or a dog girl that feels eerie and familiar.