There have been reports of children being raised by wild animals, mimicking them, and assuming a feral state since at least Romulus and Remus. Such tales have made for good works like Tarzan and less memorable ones like Stalk the Wild Child, a 1970s made-for-television movie.
But while there have been rare cases of children spending significant time among packs, herds, or flocks, there are no confirmed instances of a child becoming feral or mimicking animal behavior as a result. Feral children may act in manner reminiscent of a wild animal but this is because of developmental deficiencies, neglect, abuse, or a combination of these.
When a child with developmental disabilities who has been abandoned is discovered, some prefer a fascinating narrative that his or her feral state is owed to having been raised by animals. Whichever animal the child’s behavior and vocals most resembles is the beast he or she is assumed to have been raised by.
Although wild animals sometimes accept the presence of people and might even protect a child, it is difficult to conclude if a youngster has ever been adopted, nurtured, or taken care of by critters for an extended period. The child at the center of these stories is incapable of speech or even communication so they can’t tell us if they lived among beasts. They may have been rescued near or around animals but there’s no way to tell if the wildlife had been their companions and for how long.
There is likely a different explanation for the discovered child’s behavior and it centers on cognitive development and parent-infant bonding. If a child, through developmental delays or neglect, has not learned to speak by age 5, they likely never will, save maybe a few grunts or terse utterings. Also, children who receive little or no nurturing during their formative years will seldom have satisfying personal relationships or normal interaction with others. In an article on a feral child who was rescued after being kept locked in a tiny windowless room for the first seven years of her life, psychologist Karen Armstrong explained that 80 percent of brain development occurs by the time a person is 5.
And without normal attachment to a caregiver early in life, problems may blossom later, such as behavioral issues, extreme anxiety, emotional detachment and lashing out. But these language and developmental shortcomings are owed to congenital or environmental conditions and are not the result of being raised by wolves, monkeys, or salamanders.
Feral children my engage in self-soothing behavior such as yelping, rocking their body, sucking their fists, or making repetitive action with an object. These may all occur in children with developmental disabilities and autism. The repetitive motion occurs in nearly all cases of feral children and is a manifestation of being denied nurturing and bonding early in life and is not the result of acting out a creature feature they observed over and over.
The idea of children spending years being raised by wildlife and mimicking their sounds and behaviors is a staple of the sensationalist press but one won’t find such documentation in anthropology journals.
The most recent alleged case was an Indian girl in April 2017 who was said to have lived with monkeys since birth. She was incapable of speech and acted as her supposed simian sidekicks would have. But a deeper investigation by mainstream journalists found that she was discovered alone on the side of a road and that there was no reason to believe the monkey tale. Hers was a heart-wrenching story of a physically and mentally disabled child being neglected and abandoned. The story of being raised in the wild was fabricated to sell papers.
Skeptoid’s Brian Dunning wrote about a confirmed case of a child being found after years in the wild and it lends credence to the idea of developmental delays and neglect being the determining factor in how feral children act.
In this instance, a healthy, eloquent girl without attachment issues lived in the forest for an extended period and later integrated into society and acted normally. She was a young Native American girl taken captive in Canada and transported to France as a slave. She escaped and, having been trained to live off the land, survived in the forests for before being recaptured and brought back into society.
There, she then learned to speak, read, and write French. Eventually, she led a normal, independent life. This indicates that feral children are afflicted with a developmental disability that has nothing to do with being raised by animals or living among them. Having been nurtured and given the chance to develop normally, the Indian child was more akin to Grizzly Adams than Mowgli.