Feral Children

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.


Victor of Aveyron was a French feral child who was found in 1800 after spending most of his childhood alone in the woods. His case was taken up by the physician Jean Marc Gaspard Itard, who worked with the boy for five years and gave him his name, Victor. Itard was interested in ascertaining what Victor could learn. He devised methods to teach the boy words and recorded his progress. Based on his work with Victor, Itard broke new ground in the education of the developmentally delayed.

Victor of Aveyron was a French feral child who was found in 1800 after spending most of his childhood alone in the woods. His case was taken up by the physician Jean Marc Gaspard Itard, who worked with the boy for five years and gave him his name, Victor. Itard was interested in ascertaining what Victor could learn. He devised methods to teach the boy words and recorded his progress. Based on his work with Victor, Itard broke new ground in the education of the developmentally delayed.
(© PhotoTake, Inc./PhotoTake, Inc.)

One of the earliest documented cases of so-called feral children is that of a boy known as Victor the “Wild Boy” of Aveyron. Victor lived in the Aveyron region of southern France and was found in 1800 after apparently growing up alone in the wild, cut off from society and human contact. He was twice spotted in the woods, captured and brought to town, but escaped both times. He emerged from the woods on his own in 1800 and wandered into a tanner's workshop in the village of Saint-Sernin.

He was put under the care of a 26-year-old physician named Jean-Marc-Gaspard Itard. Itard worked with Victor for six years, teaching him to read simple words and to utter a few syllables, although he never really learned to speak. At first Victor was believed to be deaf due to his unresponsiveness to speech. However, Itard observed that he was responsive to other noises, such as the bark of a dog or the cracking of a walnut, and concluded that his hearing had developed as “simply an instrument of self preservation which informed him of the approach of a dangerous animal, or the fall of some wild fruit.” Although he was not deaf, he was taken to the National Institute for the Deaf in Paris for observation by notable instructor Roch-Ambroise Cucurron Sicard. He was scrutinized in the hopes that his behavior would reveal something about human nature and the development of human thoughts and ideas. Itard's extensive diary about Victor later inspired a film by Francois Truffaut called “The Wild Child” .

In these notes Victor is described as not truly human. Itard writes, “his whole existence was a life purely animal,” and notes that his only interests seemed to be eating, drinking, sleeping and running in the fields. He was seemingly indifferent to human relationships or contact. One incident is described in which Victor ran, naked, into the snow, happily and seemingly indifferent to the cold. Itard deduced from this that our sensitivity to temperature is not innate but rather formed and influenced by our life experiences.

Itard's observations were no doubt influenced by popular writing and ideas of the time put forth by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his Discourse on the Origins of Inequality Among Men in which he asserts that, “Savage man, left by Nature to bare instinctalone will then begin with purely animal functions… His desires do not exceed his physical needs; the only goods he knows in the Universe are food, a female, and rest.” Victor's arrival coincided with the Enlightenment period, in which many thinkers were examining the meaning of human nature and debating what makes us human and separates man from beasts. There was a fascination at the time with feral children, whom Carl Linnaeus classified as a separate species of human being called homo sapiens ferus.

How or why Victor came to live in the woods was never known; however, he was covered in scars that were examined and speculated about—particularly a large vertical scar across his throat seemingly inflicted by a knife. Speculations about abandonment or botched infanticide followed.

Victor's progress slowed and Itard abandoned his studies, declaring the attempt to teach him language a failure. Victor went on to live with Itard's governess, a nurse named Madame Guérin, who cared for him and was a maternal figure until his death in 1828.

This early example of a feral child was influential in the study of the education of developmentally delayed children. Other feral children have been discovered and written about more recently—most notably Little Genie, a girl who was discovered in the United States in 1970 having lived in near isolation for the first thirteen years of her life. Studying Victor allowed researchers to make inferences about human nature, language development, and the effects of isolation and life in the wild on human behavior and development.

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 .

American social psychologist Leon Festinger.

American social psychologist Leon Festinger.
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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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