Feral children have been historically and colloquially thought of as those raised by nonhuman animals. In fact, most feral children have experienced prolonged periods of extreme social isolation, child abuse, and neglect.
The study of children reared in complete or nearly complete isolation from human contact can provide important information to psychologists investigating various aspects of child development, language acquisition, and socialization. After removal from whatever type of confinement, abuse, neglect, or other form of extreme social isolation they have experienced, so-called feral children virtually always continue to be seriously delayed and challenged. This fact has raised the question of whether such children either were deprived of the optimal window for cognitive development, language acquisition, and social skills development or possibly were born with challenges or disabilities.
Interest in wild or feral children predates Carl Linnaeus's 1758 classification of locoferus, feral or wolf men, characterized as four-footed, nonverbal, and hairy.
The most famous historic case of a human 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. Jean-Marc-Gaspard Itard (1774– 1838), 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 over 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 from 1801–05.
Unlike Victor, 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. He regained many of the faculties that had been stunted by extreme social and sensory deprivation and achieved a level of rudimentary verbal communication. After an earlier assassination attempt, Hauser was murdered in 1833, possibly by someone who sought to prevent his origins from becoming known.
Despite the persistence and popularity throughout history of stories about children reared by animals, welldocumented cases of such children are extremely rare. 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. 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, before removing them from physical contact with a pair of wolf cubs in order to rescue them. Kamala and Amala, two girls, reportedly observed living with wolves in India in 1920, when Kamala was approximately eight years of age, and Amala about 18 months. Not only did they exhibit the physical behavior of wolves, running on all fours, eating raw meat, and staying active at night, they displayed apparent physiological adaptations to their feral life, including jaw changes consistent with gnawing on bones. Taken to an orphanage run by J. A. L. Singh, the girls were socialized, with minimal success. Amala died within two years, but Kamala achieved a modicum of socialization during the nine remaining years of her life.
The study of feral children and those subjected to extreme forms of abuse, neglect, deprivation, and social isolation has engaged some of the central philosophical and scientific controversies about human nature, including the nature/nurture debate. It has also raised questions about which human activities require social instruction, whether there is a critical period for language acquisition, and to what extent re-education is able to compensate for impoverishment of development and limited cognitive stimulation. In its time, Itard's pioneering work with the “wild boy of Aveyron” had an 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 came before.
See also Child abuse ; Child development ; Institutionalization ; Language development .
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Press, Sara, H. Pakenham-Walsh, and J. A. L. Singh. The WolfGirl of Midnapore. Pasadena, CA: Deeply Game, 2010.
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