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More 21st Century Cases

  • Alex the Dog Boy (2001). Found in Talcahuano, Chile.
  • Traian Căldărar, Romania (2002). Gypsy child born in Poland, he lived for three years with wild dogs in the wilderness. Now he is a “normal” child who likes football and mathematics.
  • Andrei Tolstyk (2004) of Bespalovskoya, near Lake Baikal, Russia, abandoned by parents, to be raised by a guard dog.
  • Cambodian jungle girl (2007). Alleged to be Rochom P’ngieng, who lived 19 years in the Cambodian jungle.
  • Lyokha, Kaluga, Central Russia (December 2007). He had been living with a pack of wolves, had typical wolflike behavior and reactions. He was unable to speak any human language. Taken to a Moscow hospital, he received some medical treatment, a shower and nail trim and several meals before escaping from the building. He is believed to still be in the wild.
  • Natasha, Chita, Zabaykalsky Krai, Russia (2009), a five-year-old girl who spent her entire life locked in a room with cats and dogs, and no heat, water, or sewage system. When she was found, she could not speak Russian, would jump at the door and bark as caretakers left, and had “clear attributes of an animal”.
  • Chhaidy, Theiva near Saiha, Mizoram (2012), a four-year-old girl who returns from the jungle after 38 years.

It’s a sober reminder of the importance of my work.

See more at “Feral Children.”

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Three Recent Clinical Examples

Sadly, not all of these case studies are drawn from history. Here are several recent examples, clinically interesting both because of their credibility and because of the wealth of associated documentation:

Danielle Crockett

Danielle Crockett did live with her mother and two adult brothers, but she was raised in a circumstance of complete neglect, with no care beyond basic feeding. She was discovered at age seven in a dark room filled with dirty diapers, feces, urine and cockroaches. She was unable to speak, walk, use the toilet, or even chew and swallow whole food.

She has since been adopted by a couple, and has learned to walk and understand basic instructions, though she still cannot speak.

Tampa Bay Times: The Girl in the Window:

Genie Wiley

Like Danielle, Genie was also raised in confinement, physically tied to a toilet during the day and to a crib at night. When she was rescued at age thirteen, she walked in an awkward shuffle that was termed a “bunny gait,” and communicated mainly by spitting and scratching. With much practice and help, Genie acquired some social skills and a limited vocabulary, though many of these gains regressed when her rehabilitation lost its funding. At present, Genie is a ward of the state.

Oxana Malaya

Oxana Malaya was discovered in the Ukraine in 1991 at age eight. She had been living among dogs since the age of three. She demonstrated a lack of ability to learn language, and exhibited dog-like traits such as barking, walking on all fours, howling, sniffing and digging. Since her rescue, Oxana has been able to learn some human behaviors, possibly owing to the similarities between human society and those of dogs.

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Nature vs. Nurture: How Lost Children Survive

"Do you remember being really young, and wishing like anything that you could run away from home and join the circus? Just the thought of the big tent with all the clowns, acrobats and then all the animals you would get to play with! Or better yet, run off into the jungle and live like Tarzan and Jane!

"That is just our imaginations talking… However, the reality of children growing up in the wild without human love and interaction can have devastating and irreversible consequences."


The Wild Boy of Aveyron

One of the most famous “wild children” is Victor of Aveyron. Victor’s case was popularized by Francois Truffaut in his 1970 film L’enfant sauvage.

Victor was studied and cared for by a young physician, Jean Marc Gaspard Itard, who worked diligently to rehabilitate him and reintegrate him into society, breaking new ground in the education of the developmentally delayed.

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History’s Favorite Wild Children

For better or worse, history is overflowing with tales of children who grow up alone, abandoned or lost, bereft of human care, protection, and love. There have been over one hundred reported cases of feral children. Here are some of the more remarkable ones.

The Ugandan Monkey-Boy

In 1991, a Ugandan villager named Milly Sebba discovered a five-year-old boy being raised by a pack of monkeys. Another villager identified the boy as John Sesebunya, who’d disappeared three years ago. The boy claims he was rescued by five monkeys, who offered him food and taught him to forage. John was re-entered society, somewhat, and now even performs in a choir. 

The Saharan Gazelle Boy

In the 1960s, a Spanish anthropologist named Jean-Claude Auger learned of a wild child living in the Western Sahara, near present-day Morocco. There, he discovered a ten-year-old boy galloping amongst a herd of gazelles. The boy had learned not just to run with the herd at better-than-Olympic speeds of over 30mph, but also to communicate with them using their language of licking, sniffing, and foot-stamps. Though several attempts were made at his rescue, the “Gazelle Boy” evaded all attempts at capture, and was never removed from his wild companions.

The Bear Girl

Around 1935, hunters in a mountainous forest near Adana, Turkey shot a she-bear, and were immediately attacked by what they thought was a “wood spirit,” who turned out to be a human girl, completely bear-like in all her mannerisms. Investigations identified her as a child who had disappeared at age two, a stunning fourteen years earlier. It is presumed the bear adopted and raised her. The girl was eventually committed to a Turkish lunatic asylum.

The Wild Girl of Champagne

A wild girl was discovered in the French district of Champagne in 1731, roughly ten-years-old, dressed in rags and carrying a pouch of supplies and a knife. A contemporary witness described the girl’s enormous thumbs, and how she used them to dig roots and climb trees like a monkey. Unlike many feral children, the “Wild Girl of Champagne” did not seem to belong to a community of animals; instead, she survived by scavenging birds, frogs, fish, leaves, and that classic of French cuisine, escargot.

This case is of particular clinical interest because the girl was, upon reintroduction to society, able to recover speech.

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Line of Inquiry: Emulation

NB: in absence of society, all of these children emulate the societies of animals. The need for belonging is so strong, they will try to belong with a different species: this adaptation becomes vital to survive.

Query: What happens when children are raised with no community at all, even an animal community? Who do they emulate then?

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A Methodology Toward Delineation of Nature Versus Nurture

Developmental psychology — the study of how children grow and eventually become adults — has, at its root, fundamental questions about identity and even humanity: who and what are we? What makes a person a person? Which parts of us are essential and immutable, pre-written into our genetic code from our moment of conception? What can be learned, and what can be unlearned? How much of our destiny is already decided? Or, to borrow from the age-old parlance: which aspects of ourselves come from nature, and which from nurture?

These are the questions that underpin developmental psychology — questions that are as philosophic as they are scientific. Though we’ve been asking them for centuries, we’ve made barely any progress toward definitive answers.

This is partly because developmental psychology has no pure laboratory in which to study children. Simply, there is no ethical way to remove a child from its social and cultural contexts, no scientific way to observe a child’s nature, without also providing for that child a kind of nurture. Yet this is the goal of my work: to understand the nature of a child, distinct from its nurture.

Thankfully, Nature herself has provided a kind of laboratory. History is filled with tales of “wild children,” raised in isolation with virtually no human contact. Many of these tales are true. Many of them have been documented. These case studies of “wild” or “feral” children are often heart-rending, but also deeply intriguing from a psychological and scientific standpoint. Feral children are a source of many enlightening clues as to how humans might behave in the absence of culture. These children, raised like animals or even by animals, have much to teach us about what it is to be human. They also remind us that the human is, at its core, a kind of animal.

These will be the primary explorations of this blog during the coming weeks: nature versus nurture, and what we as a field can learn from “feral” children, even while we heal them.