A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Has a human child ever been raised by wolves or other animals?

November 4, 1991

Dear Cecil:

Has there ever been a human raised entirely by (other) animals? We are particularly interested in wolves here a la Kipling.

Cecil replies:

It wouldn't surprise me. One look at Axl Rose and you know the guy wasn't raised by Ozzie and Harriet. But nobody knows for sure.

The idea of children raised by wolves definitely stirs the imagination — it's inspired stories ranging from Romulus and Remus to Tarzan of the Apes. There are a lot of claims of actual sightings, too, many from India, where keeping a pet human is apparently de rigeur for the wolf with everything. But the flake factor in these tales is pretty high.

On the other hand, the experts generally accept the possibility of so-called feral children — that is, kids living like (if not necessarily with) animals in the wild. More than 50 cases of feral children have been reported, wolf children included.

The best documented case of wolf children involves two girls found in 1920 by an Indian missionary named J.A.L. Singh. The two, later named Amala and Kamala, were supposedly found huddled with a couple wolf pups in an old ant-mound in the jungle near a remote village. They'd earlier been seen with adult wolves; two of these ran off at the time of capture and a third (apparently the mama wolf) was killed.

The children were unkempt, were incapable of speech apart from some inarticulate howling, and in general exhibited animal-like behavior. Typical teenagers? No. They also walked on all fours, were indifferent to heat and cold, and lapped up their food like dogs.

Singh and his wife cared for the pair in the orphanage they ran. Amala, who appeared to be about 18 months old when found, died after a year, but Kamala, who was about 8, survived until 1929. It was years before she learned to walk or speak and her vocabulary never exceeded some 50 words.

The credibility of this story has taken a few nicks. In a book published after Kamala's death Singh said he found the children himself, but in earlier newspaper accounts he was quoted as saying they were brought to him — clearly a pivotal difference. Even if the children in fact were found in a wolf's lair, that doesn't necessarily mean they were raised by wolves, merely befriended — no small thing in itself, I suppose. Since even the most hardened anthropologist won't leave a child in the wild for purposes of observation, whether beasts have actually raised humans may never be definitely settled.

Stories of feral children, as opposed to wolf children, have gained wider acceptance. One of the best authenticated cases is the Wild Boy of Aveyron. Discovered at about age 12 digging in a garden in the Aveyron district of France in 1800, the Wild Boy was mute, naked, and seemingly retarded. (Unlike most feral children, he did walk upright.) It was learned he'd been roaming the hills on his own for at least two years, living on handouts from obliging farmers and whatever he could steal. The boy was turned over to a determined doctor named Jean Itard who taught him to dress himself and perform simple chores. But he never learned to speak more than a couple words.

Feral children have long fascinated scientists. Apart from the sheer pathos of their stories, they raise some gut issues: how do we become human? If we fail to learn critical skills as children, is it impossible to do so later?

Most feral children have been severely stunted and remained so all their lives, suggesting that early human contact is essential to normal development. But others believe the children were retarded to start with. The child psychologist Bruno Bettleheim, perhaps not the best of sources, argued that the children were autistic, that is, severely withdrawn. Those unconvinced say no autistic or otherwise incapacitated child could survive in the wild for long.

A 1970 California case suggests the deprivation theory is closer to the mark. "Genie," a more or less normal two-year-old, was locked up by her demented father for 11 years, reducing her to a state of whimpering imbecility. Despite later training her language development never exceeded that of a 5-year-old. Being a wild child may conjure up visions of some Blue Lagoon-type idyll, but the reality is unspeakably cruel.

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