Lost or abandoned children raised in extreme social isolation, either surviving in the wild through their own efforts or "adopted" by animals.
The term "feral" means wild or undomesticated. Psychologists have studied feral children—children reared in complete or nearly complete isolation from human contact—to gain insights into aspects of human socialization and development. When feral children enter human society after their developmental years in isolation, they often continue to be seriously retarded. Researchers seek to answer the question of whether the abnormalities existed before their removal from society or developed because of their isolation.
Interest in feral humans began as early as the 1700s and continues to modern times. When Swedish naturalist and physician Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778) developed the system of scientific classification for plants and animals, he included the classification of loco ferus —"feral" or "wolf men, characterized as four-footed, nonspeaking, and hairy. The 1994 film Nell was based on the true story of a young woman introduced to society after living for years in near-isolation.
Victor, the "wild boy of Aveyron," is the most famous case of a human being surviving in total isolation for an extended period of time. Discovered in 1799, Victor had been lost or abandoned in childhood, apparently surviving on his own in the wild up to the age of approximately 11. Philippe Pinel (1745-1826), pioneering French psychiatrist and director of the Bicêtre asylum in Paris, declared Victor an incurable idiot. But Jean-Marc-Gaspard Itard (1775-1838), a physician and teacher of the deaf, undertook to educate Victor. 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 1801-05.
Another well-known historical case involves a young man named Kaspar Hauser who appeared in Nuremberg, Germany, in 1828. He 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. His development had been stunted by extreme social and sensory deprivation, but the process of reeducation enabled Hauser to communicate verbally, although his speech was substandard.
Despite the persistence and popularity of stories about children reared by animals throughout history, well-documented cases of such children are very rare. In most 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. The best-known modern case of zoanthropy (humans living among animals) is that of the so-called "wolf children of Midnapore" (India). In 1920, two young girls, Kamala (about age 8) and Amala (about one and a half), were observed living with wolves in India. When they were discovered, their "rescuers" actually removed them from the embrace of a pair of wolf cubs in order to take them back to society. 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. The girls were taken to an orphanage where they were cared for and exposed to human society. Amala died within two years, but Kamala lived there for nine years, achieving a moderate degree of socialization.
The study of feral children has focused on some of the central philosophical and scientific controversies about human nature. Researchers have engaged in debates about nature vs. nurture, which human activities require social instruction, whether there is a critical period for language acquisition, and to what extent education can compensate for delayed development and limited intelligence. Itard's pioneering work with the "wild boy of Aveyron" has had an impact on both education of the disabled and early childhood education. Educators like Maria Montessori have taken the study of feral children seriously. In 1909, Montessori wrote that she felt the work of Itard provided a foundation for her own work with young children.
Candland, Douglas Keith. Feral Children and Clever Animals: Reflections on Human Nature. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.
Secret of the Wild Child. Boston, MA: WGBH Educational Foundation, Boston, MA: 1994.