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Wild Things: Feral Children

Stories of children rescued from the wilderness have for centuries inspired awe, fascination and disbelief. Paul Sieveking reviews a phenomenon that helps to define the frontier between human and animal.

“Come on, poor babe:
Some powerful spirit instruct the kites and ravens
To be thy nurses! Wolves and bears, they say,
Casting their savageness aside, have done
Like offices of pity.”

[Shakespeare, Winter’s Tale, Act II, scene 3, line 185.]

Tales of children being adopted and nurtured by wolves, bears, monkeys, and other animals crop up with remarkable regularity. As the mediæval world gave way to the modern, the wodewose or wild man of the woods shifted from an archetype of chaos, insanity and heresy to one of natural harmony and enlightenment, culminating in Rousseau’s idea of the Noble Savage. But the wild man was both savage and sublime, an image of desire as well as punishment. Wild or feral children elicit both heart-rending pity for their abandonment and wonder for their survival against such terrible odds.

Ancient mythology has many stories of children nurtured by animals, but the first ‘true’ account of a feral child was recorded by the usually dependable Roman historian Procopius. A baby boy, abandoned by his mother during the chaos of the Gothic wars in about AD 250, was found and suckled by a she-goat. When the survivors returned to their homes, they found the boy living with his adopted mother and named him Aegisthus. Procopius states he saw the child himself1.

Goats don’t figure much in subsequent feral accounts, although a child said to have been raised by goats for eight years was found in the Peruvian Andes in 19902.

Carl Linnæus, the great biological classifier, introduced a new species of man, Homo ferens, in 1758, characterising the creature as mutus, tetrapus and hirsutus (a mute quadruped covered with hair)3. The attribution of hairiness was probably influenced by the legend of the hirsute wodewose, but a number of feral children are thus described, as we shall see. Linnæus provided anecdotal case histories of varying reliability: Jean de Liège, a Lithuanian bear-boy, the Hesse wolf-boy, the Irish sheep-boy, the Bamberg calf-boy, the Kranenburg girl, the two Pyrenees boys, Wild Peter of Hanover, and the savage girl from Champagne. These primary cases are briefly described below.

Many academics regarded the whole phenomenon of feral children with scepticism; they pointed out that most of the children never learnt to speak, while those that did could recall very little of their wild existence. Similarly, the circumstances of their discovery were by their nature anecdotal, taking place far from habitation and often depending on the testimony of a solitary witness. Dismissing testimony as superstition and folklore became commonplace in 19th century science, to the detriment of folk wisdom and forteana.

Robert Kerr, whose translation of Linnæus appeared in 1792, dismissed Homo ferens as imposture and exaggeration, while the 1811 survey of feral cases by JF Blumenbach, the father of physical anthropology, was characterised by Robert Zingg in 1940 as inadequate and unfair4. In 1830 the Swedish naturalist KA Rudolphi proclaimed that all the feral children were either fictional or congenital idiots, and this became the orthodox view, reinforced by Sir Edward Tylor, the father of social anthropology. According to Claude Levi Strauss in 1949, “most of these children suffered from some congenital defect, and their abandonment should therefore be treated as the consequence of the abnormality which almost all display and not, as often happens, as its cause.”5

It’s true that some feral children, such as Dina Sanichar of Sekandra (1867), the Lucknow child (1954) and the first Ugandan monkey-child (1982) were mentally or physically handicapped. Many others, however, were not; and neither were they intentionally abandoned, but had escaped from abusive parents or were lost by accident or in the chaos of war – and surviving without human help required considerable native intelligence.

Note Levi Strauss’s qualifying phrases “most of” and “almost all”; some of the case histories refuse to be explained away in this fashion, particularly those of Victor of Aveyron, Kaspar Hauser and the Midnapore wolf-girls Kamala and Amala, described in detail by persons of standing – respectively a doctor, a lawyer and a priest. As with all strange phenomena, it only requires one case to be demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt to allow the possibility that many of the others are also true.
The first modern published account of ‘historical’ as opposed to mythological feral children was a work by the medical writer Phillipus Camerius, published in Frankfurt in 16096. This described the Hesse wolf child of 1344 (of whom more below) and the Bamberg calf-child. The latter “had an extraordinary suppleness in his limbs and went on all fours with great agility. In this posture he would fight the largest dogs with his teeth, and attack them so intrepidly that he put them to flight. He was not, however, of a fierce nature.”

Sir Kenelm Digby, later one of the Royal Society’s founders, is the first to mention Jean de Liège in 1644, having interviewed those who had seen him a few years earlier7. As a five-year-old during the religious wars, Jean took to the woods with fellow villagers. When the fighting moved elsewhere, the villagers returned home, but the timorous Jean remained in hiding for 16 years. In the wild, his senses sharpened; he could scent “wholesome fruits or roots” at a great distance. When he was finally captured at the age of about 21, he was naked, “all overgrown with hair”, and incapable of speech. In human society, he learned to talk, but lost his acute sense of smell.

Nicholaus Tulp, the Dutch doctor portrayed by Rembrandt in The Anatomy Lesson, described the Irish sheep-boy in 1672. “There was brought to Amsterdam... a youth of 16 years, who being lost perhaps by his parents and brought up from his cradle amongst the wild sheep of Ireland, had acquired a sort of ovine nature. He was rapid in body, nimble of foot, of fierce countenance, firm flesh, scorched skin, rigid limbs, with retreating and depressed forehead, but convex and knotty occiput, rude, rash, ignorant of fear, and destitute of all softness. In other respects sound, and in good health. Being without human voice he bleated like a sheep, and being averse to the food and drink we are accustomed to, he chewed grass only and hay, and that with the same choice as the most particular sheep...

“He had lived on rough mountains and in desert places... delighting in caves and pathless and inaccessible dens.” Huntsmen had finally netted him. “His appearance was more that of a wild beast than a man; and though kept in restraint, and compelled to live among men, most unwillingly, and only after a long time did he put off his wild character. His throat was large and broad, his tongue as it were fastened to his palate.”8

Another sheep-boy was captured near Trikkala in Greece in 1891. He had been living with his woolly family for four years.9

The Kranenburg girl was discovered in the woods outside Zwolle in the Dutch province of Overyssel in 1717. She had been kidnapped at 16 months from her home in Kranenburg, and was found dressed in sacking and living on a diet of leaves and grass. There was no evidence that animals had befriended her. After her capture, she learnt spinning and sign language, but never mastered speech.

The primary (and uncorroborated) source on the Pyrenees feral boys is Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origin of Human Inequality in 1754. All he says is that they were discovered in 1719, “running up and down the mountainside like quadrupeds.”10

The first really famous feral child was Wild Peter, “a naked, brownish, black-haired creature” was captured near Helpensen in Hanover on 27 July 1724, when he was about 12. He climbed trees with ease, lived off plants and seemed incapable of speech. He refused bread, preferring to strip the bark from green twigs and suck on the sap; but he eventually learnt to eat fruit and vegetables. He was presented at court in Hanover to George I, and taken to England, where he was studied by leading men of letters. He spent 68 years in society, but never learnt to say anything except “Peter” and “King George”, although his hearing and sense of smell were said to be “particularly acute”.3,10, 11

The wild girl of Champagne had probably learned to speak before her abandonment, for she is a rare example of a wild child learning to talk coherently – although she could remember little of her feral existence, which she thought had lasted two years. When coaxed from a tree in Songi near Chalons in the French district of Champagne in 1731, she was aged about 10, barefoot, and dressed in rags and skins with a gourd leaf on her head. In a pouch she carried a cudgel and a knife inscribed with indecipherable characters. She shrieked and squeaked, and was so dirty (or possibly painted) that she was mistaken for a black child. Her diet consisted of birds, frogs and fish, leaves, branches and roots. Given a rabbit, she immediately skinned and devoured it.

“Her fingers and in particular her thumbs, were extraordinarily large,” according to a contemporary witness, the famous scientist Charles Marie de la Condamine. She is said to have used her thumbs to dig out roots and swing from tree to tree like a monkey. She was a very fast runner and had phenomenally sharp eyesight. When the Queen of Poland, the mother of the French queen, passed through Champagne in 1737 to take possession of the Duchy of Lorraine, she heard about the girl and took her hunting, where she outran and killed rabbits.12 She was given the name Marie-Angélique Memmie Le Blanc, and later eked out an existence in Paris by making artificial flowers and hawking her memoirs (written by Madame Hecquet). She died, like most of the feral children, in obscurity.

The two most famous feral cases of the 19th century are Victor of Aveyron, made famous by Francois Truffaut’s wonderful L’Enfant Sauvage, and Kaspar Hauser, the subject of Werner Herzog’s haunting film of the same name. A great deal has been written about both of these, most recently by Michael Newton in Savage Girls and Wild Boys, so I will concentrate on lesser-known cases. There are about 80 examples of feral children, and many will only be referred to in passing. A fairly accurate chronological table of 53 cases appears in Lucien Malson’s book.13

Victor, Kaspar and Kamala represent the three main types of feral child: in isolation, in confinement, and among animals. Children locked up for years often develop autistic symptoms, leading the psychologist Bruno Bettelheim in 1959 to lump all three types under the heading of infantile autism. “While there are no feral children,” he wrote, “there are some very rare examples of feral mothers, of human beings who become feral to one of their children.”14 This denial of genuine feral cases is closely related to the orthodox anthropological position and requires an unwarranted dismissal of remarkably consistent evidence and testimony.

Mother wolves

“In all my travels, the only time I ever slept deeply was when I was with wolves… The days with my wolf family multiplied. I have no idea how many months I spent with them but I wanted it to last forever – it was far better than returning to the world of my own kind. Today, though most memories of my long journey are etched in tones of grey, the time spent with the wolves… is drenched in colour. Those were the most beautiful days I had ever experienced.” So wrote Misha Defonseca, a Jewish orphan who, from the ages of seven to 11, wandered through occupied Europe during World War II, living on wild berries, raw meat and food stolen from farmhouses, and occasionally teaming up with wolves.15

Another child who had learned language before his life with wolves was Marcos Pantoja, “the wild child of the Sierra Morena”, who was about seven when he was abandoned in the desolate mountainous forests of southwest Spain in 1953. He spent the next 12 years without speaking to another human being.16

Since the suckling of Romulus and Remus, the wolf has been associated with the rearing and protection of children in the wild. A seven-year-old boy was supposedly captured from a wolf lair in the German state of Hesse in 1344, but the first published account didn’t appear until 1609.6 He described his capture by wolves at the age of three. They offered him the pick of the hunting spoils, carpeted a pit with leaves to protect him from the cold and made him run on all fours until he had attained their speed and could make the most prodigious leaps. After his capture, he frequently stated that he would rather associate with wolves than human beings.

Fourteen wolf-children were found in India between 1841 and 1895, seven of which were described by General WH Sleeman, the nemesis of the Thugs.17 The first was captured in Hasunpur (near Sultanpur in what is now Uttar Pradesh), and showed most of the typical wolf child characteristics. His favourite food was raw meat, and he was unable to speak. “There were evident signs, on his knees and elbows, of his having gone on all-fours,” wrote Sleeman; “and when asked to run on all-fours, he used to do so, and went so fast that no-one could overtake him.” Some wolf children responded to education. One found in Sultanpur in 1895 allegedly grew up to be a policeman.18

The most famous wolf-children are the two girls captured in October 1920 from a huge abandoned ant-hill squatted by wolves near Godamuri in the vicinity of Midnapore, west of Calcutta, by villagers under the direction of the Rev JAL Singh, an Anglican missionary. The mother wolf was shot. The girls were named Kamala and Amala (above), and were thought to be aged about eight and two. According to Singh, the girls had misshapen jaws, elongated canines, and eyes that shone in the dark with the peculiar blue glare of cats and dogs. Amala died the following year, but Kamala survived until 1929, by which time she had given up eating carrion, had learned to walk upright and spoke about 50 words.19

There were further reports of Indian wolf-children in 1927 and 1933. “Ramu the Wolf Boy” found naked in a third class waiting room in Lucknow railway station in 1954, aged about 10, was probably mentally retarded. He had deformed limbs, uttered animal cries and ate raw meat by snatching at it with his teeth (of which he had two upper sets); but there appears to be no evidence that he actually lived with wolves. He died in Lucknow hospital in 1968.20

In May 1972, a boy aged about four was discovered in the forest of Musafirkhana, about 20 miles (32km) from Sultanpur, the region where five of the wolf-children mentioned by Sleeman came from. The boy was playing with wolf cubs. He had very dark skin, long hooked fingernails, matted hair and calluses on his palms, elbows and knees. He shared several characteristics with Kamala and Amala: sharpened teeth, craving for blood, earth-eating, chicken-hunting, love of darkness and friendship with dogs and jackals. He was named Shamdeo and taken to the village of Narayanpur. Although weaned off raw meat, he never talked, but learnt some sign language. In 1978 he was admitted to Mother Theresa’s Home for the Destitute and Dying in Lucknow, where he was re-named Pascal and was visited by Bruce Chatwin in 1978. He died in February 1985.20

In 1962, according to an unsubstantiated report, geologists found a boy aged about seven running with a wolf pack in a bleak desert region of Turkmenistan, central Asia. The men threw a net over the boy, but the wolves rushed to protect him, tearing at the net. In the end, all the wolves were killed. It was four years before the boy, named Djuma, was taught to utter a few words. He told anthropologists how he rode on the back of his wolf mother when the pack went hunting, and later learned to run on all fours. He was cared for in the Republican Hospital in Ashkhabad and it was years before he got used to sleeping in a bed. By the time of a news report in 1991, he was still crawling on all fours, eating only raw meat, and biting when he was angry. Dr Rufat Kazirbaev, chief of psychiatric research in the hospital, doubted if he would ever lose his wolf ways.21

In 1970, Elmira Godayatova, six, tried to follow her mother through a wood in Azerbaijan to her grandmother’s house in the village of Milgam. Mrs Godayatova told Elmira to go home – but she never got there. Relatives, friends and police searched in vain. Twenty-three days later, a forest ranger found the little girl sitting under a tree. A local newspaper reported: “She ate berries and grass, drank water from springs, and played with ‘doggies and puppies’. Apparently the girl found a family of wolves, and wolves are known never to attack near their home.” Elmira was taken to hospital to recover.22

Wolves saved another Azerbaijani girl in 1978. Mekhriban Ibragimov, three, lost in a snow-filled ravine, was found after 16 hours, sheltering in a cave with a wolf and three cubs. She said the mother wolf licked her face23.

Shepherds found a naked boy aged about five in 1971, cowering in a cave in the Abruzzi Mountains of central Italy. Doctors believed he had been abandoned as a baby and brought up by mountain goats or wolves. He was named Rocco. Various families tried without success to ‘domesticate’ him, after which he was placed in a psychiatric hospital near Milan. He had not learned to talk and was still eating with his hands. He walked on all fours and liked to be stroked – but retreated snarling into corners when frightened.24

Texas wolf child

According to legend, in the early part of the 19th century, a wolf girl roamed the banks of the Devil’s River near Del Rio in what is even now the sparsely-populated wilderness of south-west Texas. The girl’s mother died in childbirth, and her father, John Dent, was killed in a thunderstorm while riding for help. “The child was never found, and the presumption was that she had been eaten by wolves near the Dents’ isolated cabin”, wrote the aptly named Barry Lopez in his book Of Wolves and Men.

Lopez said a boy living at San Felipe Springs in 1845 reported seeing several wolves and “a creature, with long hair covering its features, that looked like a naked girl” attacking a herd of goats. Others made similar reports the following year. Apache Indians told several times of finding a child’s footprints among those of wolves in that country.

A hunt commenced and on the third day the girl was cornered in a canyon. A wolf with her was driven off and finally shot when it attacked the party. The girl was bound and taken to the nearest ranch, where she was untied and locked in a room. That evening, a large number of wolves, apparently attracted by the girl’s loud, mournful and incessant howling, came around the ranch. The domestic stock panicked, and in the confusion the girl escaped.

According to Lopez, the girl was not seen again for seven years. In 1852, a surveying crew exploring a new route to El Paso saw her on a sand bar on the Rio Grande, far above its confluence with Devil’s River. “She was with two pups. After that, she was never seen again.”25

Care bears

According to the Athenian historian Apollodorus (168-88 BC), the Greek heroine Atalanta was abandoned by her father Iasus at birth because he desired a son; but she was suckled by a she-bear (the symbol of Artemis), till hunters found her and brought her up among themselves.

News reports do suggest that, given the right conditions, bears will take care of human infants. In 1971, five-year-old Goranka Cuculic got lost in the forest near her home village of Vranje in Yugoslavia. Three days later she was found by a farmer and related how she had met a bear and two cubs. The bear licked her face, and she played with the cubs and snuggled up to them at night in a cave [26]. In October 2001, a 16-month-old toddler went missing in Iran and was found in a bears’ den three days later, safe and well. It was thought that the baby had been breast-fed by a mother bear.27

There are accounts of children raised by bears in Denmark and the mountains of Savoy in the early 17th century. In 1669 hunters in a Lithuanian forest saw two little boys among a group of bears. They captured one and took him to Warsaw where he was named Joseph and presented to the king of Poland, who later passed him to the Vice Chamberlain of Posnan. Several times, Joseph escaped to the woods where he would suck the sap of trees and gather wild honey and crab apples. Once a wild bear, notorious for having killed two men, was seen to approach him and lick his face. Other Lithuanian bear-children were captured in 1661 and 1694. It was suggested that they had become separated from their families following raids by marauding Tartars.28

In 1767 hunters from Fraumark in lower Hungary came upon a bear’s den high in the mountains, where they found a girl of about 18, tall and brown-skinned. Her behaviour was “very crude” and when taken to an asylum she refused to eat anything but raw meat, roots and tree bark.29

Sir James Frazer mentions a girl who was said to have been nursed by a bear. Coolies from the tea gardens found her in a forest in Jalpaigori in 1892, sitting beside a huge bear den. Aged two or three, she walked on all fours and bit and scratched, but was gradually taught to walk upright and wear clothes, although she never learned to speak.30

A 14-year-old wild girl was caught in the jungle near Naini Lal, Uttar Pradesh, in July 1914. Named Goongi (‘dumb’), she ran with great agility on her hands and feet and was covered all over with a thick growth of hair. She refused a bed and cooked food, and slept under a bundle of straw. The hunter Jim Corbett speculated that she had been brought up by bears, pointing out that her climbing ability, eating habits and diet were similar to bears, and that the deep scratches on the upper part of her body could well have been caused by being carried by bears.31

In 1937 George Maranz described a visit to a Turkish lunatic asylum in Bursa, Turkey, where he met a girl who had allegedly lived with bears for many years. Hunters in a mountainous forest near Adana had shot a she-bear and then been attacked by a powerful little “wood spirit”. Finally overcome, this turned out to be a human child, though utterly bear-like in her voice, habits and physique. She refused all cooked food and slept on a mattress in a dark corner of her room. Investigations showed that a two-year-old child had disappeared from a nearby village 14 years earlier, and it was presumed that a bear had adopted her.32

Monkey Boys

Tissa from Sri Lanka

(left) Pemawathie, 42, a female woodcutter, captured a naked, longhaired boy ambling about on all fours with a troupe of monkeys in the jungle near her home village of Tissamaharama, southern Sri Lanka, in early 1973. She named him Tissa after the village. As his habits were more animal than human, she handed him over to the police, who placed him in a private welfare centre 10 miles (16km) outside Colombo, run by Miss LP Morawake. Apparently, two other “animal boys” had been tamed there, one of whom drank milk straight from a cow’s udder. Three months after his admission, Tissa was still learning to walk upright and was not yet talking, although he could eat food from a plate with his hand. Most telling perhaps was that he had learned to smile.33

Burundi monkey boy

This child was said to have been found in Burundi in 1973 by either missionaries or hunters, playing in a group of monkeys. He was aged about six, and had the manners and behaviour of a monkey. American anthropologist Diane Skelly said he was covered in a fine layer of hair, which disappeared once he took to wearing clothes. After studying the boy intensively, Dr Harlan Lane (author of The Wild Boy of Aveyron) and Dr Richard Pillard, said he had suffered a “disastrous illness” at the age of two, resulting in organic retardation. They could account for every year of his life and he was never in the wild.34

Robert of Uganda

In 1982, during the chaos of civil war, a boy aged three was left for dead in the Luwero triangle of Uganda. Three years later, soldiers came upon a group of Vervet monkeys. All scattered apart from one female protecting a small bundle which turned out to be a human child. At the Naguru orphanage in Kampala he was named Robert. He was deaf and dumb. By the age of eight, he had been toilet-trained and learned to walk and sleep in a bed.35

John of Uganda

One day in 1991, a Ugandan villager called Milly Sebba went further than usual in search of firewood and came upon a little boy with a pack of monkeys. She summoned help and the boy was cornered up a tree. He was brought back to Milly’s village and fed hot food, which made him very ill for three days. He had many wounds and scales, and a lot of hair. His knees were almost white from walking on them. His nails were very long and curled round and he wasn’t house-trained. The villagers removed tapeworms from his behind, some of them reportedly 4ft (122cm) long.

A villager identified the boy as John Sesebunya, last seen in 1988 at the age of two or three when his father murdered his mother and disappeared. After John was discovered, his father was traced, but was not interested in caring for the wild boy. A few weeks later the father was found hanged, a victim of civil unrest. After his mother was murdered John had fled to the jungle, apparently terrified he would be next.
For the next three years or so, he lived wild. He vaguely remembers monkeys coming up to him, after a few days, and offering him roots and nuts, sweet potatoes and kasava. The five monkeys, two of them young, were wary at first, but befriended him within about two weeks and taught him, he says, to travel with them, to search for food and to climb trees. “I didn’t sleep very well,” he remembers, “head down and bottom in the air... or I would climb a tree.” Some sources say John’s guardians were Vervet monkeys (Cercopithecus æthiops); others say they were black-and-white Colobus monkeys (Colobus guereza).

The boy was adopted by Paul and Molly Wasswa, who run the Kamuzinda Christian Orphanage in Masaka, 100 miles (160km) from Kampala. He has been studied by a host of experts, who are convinced that he is a genuine feral child. When left with a group of monkeys he avoided eye contact and approached them from the side with open palms, in classic simian fashion. He has a strange lopsided gait and pulls his lips right back when he smiles. He tends to greet people with a powerful hug, in the way that monkeys greet each other. He has, however, learned to wink – something a monkey would never do.

He is now about 16 years old with a fine singing voice, and on 6 October 1999 came to Britain as part of the 20-strong Pearl of Africa Children’s Choir, run by Mr Wasswa’s organisation A.F.R.I.C.A. (Association for Relief and Instruction of Children in Africa).36

Bello of Nigeria

In 1996, a boy aged about two was found by hunters, living with a family of chimpanzees in the Falgore forest, 90 miles (145km) south of Kano in Nigeria. He was taken to the Tudun Maliki Torrey children’s home in Kano, where the staff named him Bello. He is thought to be the son of nomadic Fulani people who travel through the region. Mentally and physically disabled, with a misshapen forehead, sloping right shoulder and protruding chest, he was probably abandoned by his parents because of his disabilities. Such abandonments of disabled children are common among the Fulani, a pastoralist people who travel great distances across the West African Sahel region. In most instances the children die, but this child appears to have been adopted by the chimps.

“We do not know exactly how long he would have been with the chimps,” said Abba Isa Muhammad, the home’s child welfare officer. “Based on the traits he exhibits, we estimate that he was adopted when he was no more than six months old and nursed by a nursing chimp.”

Bello is now (April 2002) aged about eight, but has the size and weight of a four-year-old. When he was first brought in, he walked in a chimpanzee-like fashion, moving on his hind legs but dragging his arms on the ground. At first he was very restless, smashing and throwing things and leaping about at night from bed to bed in the dormitory, but today he is much calmer. He still leaps, chimpanzee-like, and claps his hands over his head repeatedly, cupping his hands, and does not speak but makes chimpanzee-like noises.37

Gazelle Boys - Spanish Sahara

Jean-Claude Auger,38 an anthropologist from the Basque country, was travelling alone across the Spanish Sahara (Rio de Oro) in 1960 when he met some Nemadi nomads, who told him about a wild child a day’s journey away. The next day, he followed the nomads’ directions. On the horizon he saw a naked child “galloping in gigantic bounds among a long cavalcade of white gazelles”.

Auger found a small oasis of thorn bushes and date palms and waited for the herd. Three days later, his patience was rewarded, but it took several more days of sitting and playing his galoubet (Berber flute) to win the animals’ confidence. Eventually, the child approached him, showing “his lively, dark, almond-shaped eyes and a pleasant, open expression... he appears to be about 10 years old; his ankles are disproportionately thick and obviously powerful, his muscles firm and shivering; a scar, where a piece of flesh must have been torn from the arm, and some deep gashes mingled with light scratches (thorn bushes or marks of old struggles?) form a strange tattoo.”

The boy walked on all fours, but occasionally assumed an upright gait, suggesting to Auger that he was abandoned or lost at about seven or eight months, having already learnt to stand. He habitually twitched his muscles, scalp, nose and ears, much like the rest of the herd, in response to the slightest noise. Even in deepest sleep he seemed constantly alert, raising his head at unusual noises, however faint, and sniffing around him like the gazelles.

Auger describes how he gradually learnt to decipher the significance of every gazelle gesture and movement, which the boy shared with the herd. There was a complex code of stamping to indicate distance of food sources; and social interaction through exchanges of licking and sniffing, with the boy emitting a kind of mute cry from the back of his throat with his mouth closed. He had one word: kal (khah), meaning stone or rock. One senior female seemed to act as his adoptive mother. He would eat desert roots with his teeth, pucking his nostrils like the gazelles. He appeared to be herbivorous apart from the occasional agama lizard or worm when plant life was lacking. His teeth edges were level like those of a herbivorous animal.

Two years after his stay with the herd, Auger returned with a Spanish army captain and his aid-de-camp, who kept their distance to avoid frightening the herd off. Curiosity eventually overcame them and they chased the boy in a jeep to see how fast he could run. This frightened him off altogether, though he reached a speed of 32-34mph (52-54km/h), with continuous leaps of about 13ft (4m). Olympic sprinters can reach only 25mph (40km/h) in short bursts.

His pursuers failed to keep up across the rough terrain, and eventually the herd disappeared as the jeep sustained a puncture. In 1966 an unsuccessful attempt was made to catch the boy in a net suspended from a helicopter; unlike most of the feral children of whom we have records, the gazelle boy was never removed from his wild companions. Auger took no photographs of the boy, being more concerned with protecting him from human interference than providing evidence to convince the sceptics of his existence. Perhaps the whole thing is a fairy story…

Middle East

According to the fortean zoologist Ivan Sanderson, the story of an earlier gazelle-boy “turned out to be a plant by a bored newsman in Cairo during World War II”; but he gives no further details.39 The version I have traced is a report from Baghdad in August 1946 by a certain M Abdul Karim, and the story bears re-telling. A wild boy had been caught in the desert straddling Transjordan, Syria and Iraq. Amir Lawrence al Sha’alan, chief of the Ruweili tribe, was out hunting in this inhospitable region, whose only inhabitants were the staff at the British-run stations of the Iraq Petroleum Company.

“I was astonished to see what looked like a boy running amid a herd of gazelles we were chasing,” said the Amir. “I called to the occupants of the other cars to stop shooting. We were still far away, but could see that the boy was running as fast as the gazelles. We chased the herd in our cars for 50 miles (80km), during which time he kept up with them, bounding along with a half-human, half-animal gait. Suddenly we saw the boy stumble and fall. When we came up to him we found that his leg had been injured by a large stone. He looked up at us with fear starting from his luminous eyes and shrank from our touch, emitting cries like a wounded gazelle.”

The Amir tried to feed and clothe him, but he kept escaping, so he took him to Dr Musa Jalbout at one of the Petroleum Company stations, who later passed him into the care of four Baghdad doctors. Dr Jalbout said he acted, ate and cried like any gazelle, and had no doubt that he had lived all his life among the gazelles, being suckled by them and cropping the sparse desert herbage along with the herd. He was thought to be aged about 15.

Apparently speechless, he was covered in fine hair and ate only grass – although a week before Karim’s report he had had his first meal of bread and meat. He could allegedly run at 50 mph (80km/h), twice the Olympic record. He was 5ft 6in (1.7m) tall, “so thin that the bones could be counted easily beneath the flesh, yet stronger physically than a normal full-grown man.” An unnamed “Syrian expert of desert lore in Damascus” is quoted as saying that Bedouin women giving birth in the desert often abandon their babies to the mercy of nature. Most died, but in very rare cases the child was adopted by animals.40

Big Cat guardians

A leopard-child was reported by EC Stuart Baker in the Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society (July 1920). Since he was in administrative charge of the North Cachar Hills at the time when he investigated the case, he was in an excellent position to obtain a true account of the facts. The boy was stolen from his parents by a leopardess in the North Cachar Hills near Assam in about 1912, and three years later recovered and identified. “At the time the child ran on all fours almost as fast as an adult man could run, whilst in dodging in and out of bushes and other obstacles he was much cleverer and quicker. His knees… had hard callosities on them and his toes were retained upright almost at right angles to his instep. The palms of his hands and pads of his toes and thumbs were also covered with very tough horny skin. When first caught, he bit and fought with everyone… and any wretched village fowl which came within his reach was seized, torn to pieces and eaten with extraordinary rapidity.”

According to an unsubstantiated report, a wild girl aged about two was found in a forest south of Jansi in north central India in May 1986. She was slumped over a fatally injured female panther.41

The Kuano River boy

The village of Baragdava stands on the small river Kuano in the Basti district of Uttar Pradesh in northern India, near the border with Nepal. One afternoon in February 1973, the local priest was walking across the nearby dam across the Kuano when he caught sight of a naked boy loping towards the water. He appeared to walk out on the water to mid-stream. Suddenly he dived in and emerged a minute later with a large fish which he ate, before floating downstream. The priest told the villagers of his sighting, and when he described the lad and estimated that he was about 15, an old woman called Somni said he was her son Ramchandra who had been carried away by the river when he was a year old.

Another villager saw him a few days later, and for a while there was considerable local interest, and people flocked to the river to see him; but he was not to be found. Then in May 1979, Somni spotted him lying in a field. She crept up on him and recognised a birthmark on his back. He awoke and fled. A strict watch was mounted, he was caught and taken to the village.

He was virtually hairless and his ebony-black skin had a greenish tinge. He managed to escape back to the river, but his experience of human society made him less reclusive, and he would come and eat bowls of spinach in water put out for him. Hundreds of villagers, policemen, officials of the irrigation department, and hard-boiled journalists saw him walk, run, or recline on the surface of the water, and stay submerged for longer than ordinary humans could manage. Among the witnesses was Nazir Malik, who wrote up the story for the Allahabad magazine, Probe India.

The boy’s insteps and toes were very hard and walked with a clumsy, loping gait, often holding one hand to his forehead. He was unable to speak (or hear, according to some witnesses). He ate fish, frogs and other marine creatures, raw meat, leafy vegetables, gourds and red chillies. He reached for food directly with his mouth. In summer months when Kuano dried to a trickle, he was ill at ease; but when the river rose in floods, he was gleeful and enjoyed diving in the swift current. It was a mystery how he avoided the jaws of the many crocodiles.

Somni had a strange tale of how Ramchandra was conceived. On a stormy evening during the monsoon season, she was returning from mending a fence around the family field, as her husband was laid low with fever. She was 40 years old, a mother of three. Her way was blocked by an enormous being who seemed more like a spirit than a man. He threw her to the ground and raped her in the pouring rain. As suddenly as he appeared, he vanished.

It was believed locally that a long time ago a holy man dug a well in the area. He climbed down to invoke the goddess of water, but was drowned as the well quickly filled. Some of the villagers believed it was the spirit of this man that possessed Somni and then took the child into his watery care.

In 1985, Hubert Adamson, an estate agent in Hampstead with a keen interest in feral children, visited Baragdava to find out more about the river boy. From the head man he learned that the boy was dead. One evening in 1982, at the age of about 24, he had approached a chai shop in the village of Sanrigar, some 300 yards from the river. A woman, possibly taking fright at his appearance or rejecting a clumsy sexual advance, threw boiling water over him. Dazed and in pain, he ran back to the river, never to emerge again. His body, badly blistered and mutilated by fish bites, was later found in the river. The police considered bringing charges against the woman, but these were later dropped.42

The Delphos child

In July 1974, four people reported seeing a young child, 10 or 12 years old, with blond, matted hair, dressed in tattered red clothing, running through vines and brush in a wooded area north-west of Delphos in Kansas. Children had seen the girl eating from cat and dog dishes.

One of the witnesses, Mrs Joe Stout, saw the child early in the morning of 22 July in a shed on a vacant lot covered with a thicket of trees and saplings. She came face-to-face with the child sitting on a picnic table no more than six feet away. “She – we’re not sure if it is a boy or a girl, except that she had on a red dress – made a gurgling sound and when I started to step closer, she jumped down off the picnic table and went through a small hole in the wall. She’s definitely human. She’s not deformed, but she runs on all fours”, said Mrs Stout.

During a late night search of the area on the same day, Mr Stout was scratched on the shoulder and a teenage neighbour, Kevin Marsh, was scratched on the throat from behind. Neither got more than a glimpse of their small attacker. Leonard Simpson, sheriff of Ottawa County, organised a posse to search the neighbourhood, but nothing was found.43

Dog Boys

Kunu Masela, six, was seen for three years scavenging for food round the Kenyan town of Machakos with a dog. Mrs Grace Kubuu asked him where he lived. “With Poppy” was all he would say. One evening she followed them out into the bush and saw the dog dragging together some banana leaves to make a bed for them.

The local press ran the story, after which his mother came forward. Mrs Rukia Ali Murefu, 29, a coffee plantation worker who had moved to Nairobi, said that her husband had left her when Kunu was born in 1977, and she had struggled for three years to care for him. She was very poor, and eventually abandoned him in the bush. “I knew Kunu would be cared for by God – and I was right,” she said. “Poppy my mother. Poppy give me milk,” Kunu told a reporter. In 1983, he was in a government juvenile home and the dog was being cared for by a market trader.44

On 16 June 2001, an 11-year-old boy called Alex Rivas was rescued from the sea as he tried to escape from the police. For many months, he had been living with a pack of about 15 stray dogs in a cave near the southern Chilean port of Talcahuano, scavenging out of dustbins and drinking milk from the teat of a bitch that had recently given birth. Filthy and with his teeth rotting from dog milk and drugs, he was known to local people as “Dog Boy” and would snarl at any human who tried to approach him. He was described as extremely violent, malnourished, hyperactive and inarticulate. He had broken front teeth, a scarred cheek, and was suffering from hypothermia.

After being abandoned by his 16-year-old mother when he was only five months old, he had a disrupted childhood before being put into a children’s home in Chillancito, near Concepcion, in 1998. He constantly ran away, only to be caught. He finally joined the dog pack and managed to evade capture. In November 2001, he again escaped from the Chillancito children’s home and FT has seen no further reports.45

Children nurtured by dogs have also turned up in the Philippines (1982), Germany (1988), Oklahoma (1989), England (1992), Hungary (1994), Romania (1994), and Italy (1994). Ivan Mishukov, six, was rescued from a pack of dogs with whom he had had been living for two years in Retova, west of Moscow.46

A feral child was caught in the Brasov region of Transylvania, Romania, in early February 2002. When shepherd Manolescu Ioan’s car broke down, he was forced to walk home across country from his pastures in the shadow of the Fagaras Mountains. At 6am he came upon a naked, wild-eyed child living in a cardboard box and covered with a plastic sheet. He was eating from the carcass of a dead dog. Manolescu reported his find to the police, who later captured the boy.

It was believed he had lived alone in the forest for years, but doctors thought that he must have had some protection; perhaps he had been looked after by some of the many wild dogs in the region. He was the size of a normal four-year-old, but his missing front milk teeth pointed to an age of seven. He had rickets, anæmia, the distended belly of the half-starved, and frostbite on his feet and legs. His face and head were scarred and scabbed. He ate whatever he was given, but didn’t recognise fruit. He was not toilet-trained. Hospital personnel in Fargas called him Mowgli, after the character in Kipling’s Jungle Book (below).

The chief nurse of the children’s ward said: “He only knows two words – ‘Mama’ and ‘food’ – and is very happy in his bedroom at the hospital as long as there is food there. He has dark hair and dark eyes and once his hair was washed and cut and he was given a bath he looked really presentable, but he tends to walk like a chimp rather than upright and tries to sleep under his bed rather than on it. But if he has some food in his hand he is the nicest little chap.”

About a week after his capture, he was identified as Traian Caldarar, lost three years ago at the age of four. After being re-educated at an orphanage in Brasov, he was reunited in April with his mother Lina Caldarar, 23, in the remote village of Vistea de Jos, less than seven miles (11km) from where he was found in February. “I loved my son, but I had a violent husband who beat me,” she said. Traian Ciurar, 24, the boy’s father, is married to Ms Caldarar under gypsy law. When she fled back to her family to escape her husband’s cruelty, he prevented her from taking her son. She believes he ran away for the same reason. “I was distraught but there was nothing I could do,” she said. “I hoped he had perhaps been adopted by another family.”

Traian appears to be on the mend, but he is still not house-trained. “Someone needs to keep an eye on him at all times because it’s easy for him to get hurt,” said his mother. “He still can’t identify the dangers in the street. Like an untrained puppy, he’ll just run across the road, regardless of whether there are cars coming.”47

Raised by birds

Sidi Mohamed, the ostrich-boy, told the following amazing story in 1945. At the age of five or six he wandered off from his North African family, found an ostrich nest with chicks hatching, befriended the parent birds and lived with them for 10 years, learning to live off grass and to match their speed in running. At night, he was sheltered by the two ostriches which each extended a wing over him. Finally he was caught by mounted ostrich hunters and restored to his parents.

A Sydney woman was fined £1 in November 1903 for leaving her child to be reared in a chicken run, with the consequence that the little one could do nothing but imitate the fowls in every way, even to roosting at night.

Since birth, Isabel Quaresma, 10, lived in a chicken coop in Tabua, Portugal. She was thrown pieces of bread and shared the chicken feed. Her mother was a mentally deficient rural worker. In 1980, she was taken by a district hospital worker and put in a Lisbon clinic. She was unable to walk and was not house-trained. She gestured and made sounds like a chicken and ate with her hands. Her body was severely stunted with a tiny head, probably due to malnutrition. One eye was clouded with a cataract, possibly the result of a hen scratch.

In the 1990s, a two-year-old Filipino known as Jesse Boy was discovered locked in a henhouse where his stepfather confined him for seven months after badly beating him. He crowed like a rooster, clucked like a hen and picked up food as if his mouth were a beak. He also flapped his arms like wings as if trying to fly.

He was rescued by a childcare agency in the town of Manito after a tip-off. After some unspecified time of therapy, he gave up his early morning crowing and ate at table, but in 1999 he could still only speak in monosyllables. He also continued to flap his arms when playing with other disadvantaged children.48

Pig Children

In the 1830s, there were two accounts of children suckled by pigs – in Salzburg, Germany, and in Overdyke, Holland. Sergei Mironovich Kirov, a member of the Soviet politburo and Stalin’s best friend, was allegedly suckled by a sow.49

In 1984, the Chinese Xinhua News Agency reported the tale of a peasant girl in Liaoning province who had been suckled by sows and slept in their sty at nights. Wang Xianfeng was left as an infant with the family’s pigs because her deaf-mute father and mentally retarded mother were unable to care for her and no one else lived near them. The girl lived exclusively on sows’ milk until she was almost five. Then she graduated to pig swill. She was always first at the trough when it was filled in the mornings. In 1983, psychologists discovered Wang, then nine, had the intelligence of a three-year-old. The report did not say when or how the girl was found.

Experts from the China Medical Science University and the Anshan Institute of Psychometry took the child in hand, and by 1987 the 13-year-old could read 600 Chinese characters, count from one to 100, sing children’s songs and do some housework. Experiments were still under way to “see whether the girl can finally achieve normal intelligence” announced Xinhua.50

Lost in the desert

Three-year-old Michael Raadt and his cousin Thabiso Paint, aged two, wandered off on 10 December 2001 while playing at the Luckhoff farm in South Africa’s rural Free State, where their parents worked. Thabiso was found naked and scratched near the fast-flowing Orange River three days later. Apart from another track of tiny footprints, there was no sign of Michael. Police used dogs and helicopters in a fruitless weeklong search, after which everyone thought he had drowned.

Three weeks later, at 4pm on New Year’s Eve, Johan Lombaard was out on his motorbike checking irrigation equipment on his farm when he found Michael 19 miles (30km) from home. He was covered in mud, wearing only a T-short and lying on his side near a lake. “I walked closer to see whether he was still alive,” said Mr Lombaard. “I could see he was breathing and told him he had to wait there, I was going to fetch the bakkie [van]. He just blinked his eyes. If the tough little tyke had walked around in the searing hot sun for another day or two, he wouldn’t have made it.”

The province had been experiencing sweltering summer days with temperatures up to 100F (38C) and there had been torrential thundershowers at night. Although it is mostly farmland, the Luckhoff terrain is vast and isolated, thorny and rocky, with snakes and predators including leopards. At the Pelonomi Hospital in Bloemfontein, Michael was found to be covered in scabs, dehydrated and suffering from mild pneumonia. He had lost a lot of weight. When his mother, Tina Raadt, asked him how he survived, he said he had eaten “flowers” and hidden under bushes at night. The “flowers” were probably berries and pods. The police were mystified how he had survived such tough conditions alone for so long.51

Last Indian case

Sudam Pradhana from the village of Bargania in Orissa, India, never went to the local school and enjoyed tending cows and working in the fields. In April 1990, when he was 13, he travelled to the dense Labingi forests in the Angul district, 19 miles (30km) from his village, with his elder cousin Abhay who was looking for a large log to make into a plough. Abhay told Sudam to rest near a makeshift loghouse while he went in search of water. When he returned, Sudam had gone. For several days, Sudam’s parents and their neighbours searched for him without success. His father Gautam Pradhan never reported his disappearance as he kept hoping he would turn up sooner or later – and he did.
On 4 May 2001, Gayachand Muduli and Deb Muduli from the neighbouring village of Gadtaras, collecting firewood in the forest, encountered a wild creature with long hair and unkempt winding fingernails sheepishly gawking at them while sucking mangoes under a tree. “He was wearing torn trousers and carrying an empty plastic bag. Mango pulp was smeared all over his chin,” said Gayachand. “He made no attempt to run away on seeing us.”

They took him back to Garatarasa where he was identified as Sudam because of scars on his skull and feet. “He now behaves like an animal and covers his body with leaves,” said a villager. He greeted questions with blank stares and struggled to utter a word or two in Oriya. He has big, white marks on his skin as if he has been in combat with wildlife. “My son has returned home after 11 years due to the blessing of God,” said his father Gautam Pradhan.

Ganesh Pradhan, the police chief at Bantala, suggested Sudam might have spent the last 11 years in the company of the honey-collecting nomadic Mallar tribe which lives deep in the jungle. “It is also possible that he went across the forest to the villagers of Cuttack or Phulbani district on the other side,” he said. “After having wandered for long he might have found his way back into the forest.”52

Feral characteristics

Besides the (probably) apocryphal Syrian gazelle-boy, many wild children were extraordinarily fast quadrupedal runners – almost ‘superhuman’. We might recall that Atalanta, the bear-suckled heroine of Greek myth, was the most swift-footed of mortals. When first captured, Memmie Le Blanc moved with “a sort of flying gallop” and could out-run game; and the Saharan gazelle-boy was clocked at 7mph (11km/h) faster than the best Olympic sprinter.

A number of ferals were hirsute, including Jean de Liège (17th cent), the second Lithuanian bear-child (1669), the Kranenburg girl (1717), the wild boy of Kronstadt (fl.1784), the second Hasunpur wolf-child (1843), the Shajampur child (1898), and the Naini Lal bear-child (1914). A young man caught in woods near Riga, Latvia, in November 1936 was allegedly “covered in long thick hair”.55

Feral senses were often more acute than those of socialised humans. Kaspar Hauser and many of the Indian wolf-children, including the Midnapore girls, could see well in the dark. Jean de Liège could recognise his warden by smell from a distance; Kamala could smell meat from one end of the orphanage garden – a compound of three and a half acres – to the other; and many wild children sniffed at objects in the way that cats and dogs do. Victor of Aveyron, the first Sultanpur child (1847), Kamala and Amala had an unusually sharp sense of hearing.

Another curious phenomenon is the wild children’s insensitivity to extremes of temperature, a characteristic shared with desert nomad and gypsy children. This was seen in the Irish sheep-boy, Victor, the Kronstadt boy, the first Sultanpur child, the Midnapore girls, and the Saharan gazelle-boy. The latter was seen to grab a handful of hot embers and hold them for some time without apparent pain, while Victor took potatoes out of a pot of boiling water. At least eight ferals angrily tore off any clothing they were dressed in.

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Author Biography
Paul Sieveking is a founding editor of Fortean Times and retains his keen interest in all the oddities and quirks of nature.
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