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Feral Children

Lost or abandoned human children raised in extreme social isolation, either surviving in the wild through their own efforts or "adopted" by animals.

The study of children reared in complete or nearly complete isolation from human contact can provide important information to psychologists studying various aspects of socialization. After their return to human society, feral children often continue to be seriously retarded, raising the question of whether or not such children manifested abnormalities before their removal from society. Interest in wild or feral children dates back to Carl Linnaeus's 1758 classification of loco ferus—"feral" or "wolf" men, characterized as four-footed, nonspeaking, and hairy.

The most famous case of a human being surviving in total isolation for an extended period of time is that of Victor, the "wild boy of Aveyron," discovered in 1799. Lost or abandoned in childhood, he had apparently survived on his own in the wild up to the age of approximately 11. Philippe Pinel, the renowned director of the asylum at Bicêtre, France, declared Victor an incurable idiot, but Jean-Marc-Gaspard Itard, a physician and teacher of the deaf, undertook to educate him. Although he remained almost totally unable to speak, Victor showed great improvements in socialization and cognitive ability in the course of several years spent working with Itard. In 1807, Itard published Rapports sur le sauvage de l'Aveyron (Reports on the Wild Boy of Aveyron), a classic work on human educability, detailing his work with Victor between the years 180105.

Unlike Victor, the young man named Kaspar Hauser who appeared in Nuremberg, Germany, in 1828 had apparently been locked up in isolation for an extended period, but without being totally deprived of human care. A 17-year-old with the mentality of a child of three, Hauser was reeducated over the next five years, regaining many of the faculties that had been stunted by extreme social and sensory deprivation, to the point where he could communicate verbally although his speech was substandard. After an earlier assassination attempt, Hauser was murdered in 1833, presumably by someone who sought to prevent his origins from becoming known.

Despite the persistence and popularity of stories about children reared by animals throughout history, well-documented cases of such children are very rare, and in most of these cases the documentation begins with the discovery of the child, so that virtually nothing is known about the time actually spent in the company of animals. In the best-known modern case of zoanthropy (humans living among animals), however, researchers did have some opportunities to observe the behavior of two children—the so-called Wolf Children of Midnapore—while they were in the company of wolves, actually removing them from the embrace of a pair of wolf cubs in order to take them back to society. Kamala and Amala, two young girls, were observed living with wolves in India in 1920, when Kamala was approximately eight years of age, and Amala about one and a half. Not only did they exhibit the physical behavior of wolves—running on all fours, eating raw meat, and staying active at night—they displayed physiological adaptations to their feral life, including modifications of the jaw resulting from chewing on bones. Taken to an orphanage run by J.A.L. Singh, the girls were cared for and exposed to human society. Amala, the younger one, died within two years, but Kamala achieved a modicum of socialization over the nine remaining years she lived.

The study of feral children has engaged some of the central philosophical and scientific controversies about human nature, including the nature/nurture debate as well as questions about which human activities require social instruction, whether or not there is a critical period for language acquisition, and to what extent can education compensate for delayed development and limited intelligence. Itard's pioneering work with the "wild boy of Aveyron" has had a profound impact on both education of the disabled and early childhood education. In 1909, the renowned Italian educator and physician Maria Montessori (1870-1952) wrote that she considered her own achievements a "summing up" of previous progress, giving Itard a prominent place among those whose work she saw herself as continuing.

Further Reading

Candland, Douglas Keith. Feral Children and Clever Animals: Reflections on Human Nature. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Singh, Joseph. Wolf Children and Feral Man. Hamden, CT: Archon Books, 1966.

Additional topics

Psychology EncyclopediaChild Development