MELISSA LYTTLE | Times

Feral children through the ages

With Dani, authorities had discovered the rarest and most pitiable of creatures: a feral child. The term is not a diagnosis. It comes from historic accounts – some fictional, some true – of children raised by animals and therefore not exposed to human nurturing.

Here are some examples:

Romulus and Remus

Accounts of children being abandoned, or raised by animals, are as ancient as Roman mythology. The first reported feral children were twins of noble birth who were left to die in the wilderness around 750 B.C. According to legend, a she-wolf suckled and protected them. Then, stories say, a shepherd found the brothers, who grew up tending flocks. Eventually, Romulus killed Remus — and founded the city of Rome.

Victor of Aveyron

Around 1800, a boy walked out of the woods near Paris, naked and unable to speak. A doctor took him in, guessed he was about 12 and gave him a name. Experts determined he had been alone almost his entire life. For five years, the doctor tried to teach the boy to talk, eat with utensils and live in civilization. Victor came to understand some language, but never learned to speak. The doctor’s maid wound up taking care of him.

Dina Sanichar, Wolf Boy

In 1867, hunters in India thought a wild animal was sleeping in a cave. But when they smoked it out, they were astonished to see a 6-year-old boy. Apparently, he had spent most of his life living with a pack of wolves. The hunters took the boy to an orphanage, where missionaries tried to teach him to eat cooked food. Instead, he gnawed on bones and raw meat. He never learned to talk. Some say he inspired Rudyard Kipling to create Mowgli in his Jungle Book stories.

Genie

One of the most well-studied cases was a 13-year-old California girl found in 1970, strapped to a toilet. Her father had kept her tied up for most of her life. She couldn’t stand up straight or chew solid food, and was incontinent. She wouldn’t let anyone touch her. Scientists called her Genie and studied her in a hospital. Eventually, a doctor moved her into his home, where she learned to use the toilet, and say a few words. But by 18, she was back in foster care, back in diapers and not speaking. She now lives in a California group home.

Ehsaas, Mowgli Girl

The most recent report of a feral child was in January, when woodcutters in India found an emaciated, naked girl roaming with monkeys. When police tried to capture her, she ran -- and the monkeys chased them. The girl, 8 to 12 years old, couldn’t talk, walked on all four limbs and ate directly with her mouth, not using her hands. She tried to escape the hospital and is now in a juvenile facility, where she has learned to walk upright.

Sources: Dionysius, Vol. 1; Plutarch’s Lives; Ovid’s Fasti; The Wild Boy of Aveyron by Harlan Lane; The Wild Boy of Aveyron by Jean-Marc Gaspard Itard; The History Channel; ABC News, PBS, The Associated Press, The BBC, The Times of India, The Mirror.

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Experiments

Philosophers and scientists have long speculated about the origin of language, and the power of love. Some saw feral children as the perfect subjects to study: Free of the imprint or influence of humanity. Others experimented on baby humans and monkeys.

Frederick II, the Holy Roman Emperor, was determined to discover the language that God would have spoken to Adam and Eve. In 1211, he had orphaned infants rounded up and ordered nurses to suckle and bathe the children, but never speak to them. If babies grow up in silence, he thought, they would speak the original language. But all the infants died. “He laboured in vain,” a monk named Salembene di Adam wrote in his Medieval Chronicles. “For the children could not live without clappings of the hands, and gestures, and gladness of countenance, and blandishments.”

In the 15th century, King James IV of Scotland wanted to find out whether language was learned or innate. So he sent two children to be raised on a remote island by a mute woman. “Some says they spak guid Hebrew,” Robert Lindsay wrote in his 1814 Chronicles of Scotland. He added that there was no proof the boys ever talked.

Psychologist Harry Harlow studied infant monkeys and noticed that those raised without mothers were reclusive, socially defective and clung to cloth diapers. So in the 1950s, he started experimenting with the nature of nurturing. In one test, he put groups of baby monkeys in a room with two fake mothers: One was made of wire and gave out food. The other, made of terry cloth, held out its soft arms. Though the monkeys were hungry, they clung to the cloth — choosing comfort over nourishment.

Harlow also isolated monkeys in cages, but allowed them to watch other monkeys. Soon, the monkeys who were alone started staring blankly, circling their cages and self-mutilating. Later, he isolated monkeys entirely, some for as long as 15 years. “No monkey has died during isolation,” Harlow wrote in a 1965 study. “When initially removed from total social isolation, however, they usually go into a state of emotional shock, characterized by ... autistic self-clutching and rocking.” One monkey, isolated for three months, refused to eat after being released and died five days later. Harlow wrote, “The autopsy report attributed death to emotional anorexia.”

Additional credits

  • Editor Maria Carrillo
  • Photo editor Patty Yablonski
  • Story design Lyra Solochek, Martin Frobisher and Lauren Flannery
  • Research Caryn Baird