For centuries, stories of feral children have been circulating throughout the world. Once thought to be “wild children”, the modern-day definition of “feral” has become a child who was raised in isolation without any social interaction with another human being. Whether it was because of abusive parenting, abandonment, or another mysterious circumstance, these children were forced to tap into their basic animal instincts in order to survive their situations.
Some of these feral children were victims of circumstance who were able to be socialized and even learn to speak in order to tell others about their backstory. Others most likely had developmental disabilities, or were so far gone that there would be no hope to bring them on an equal level with people in their society. Whether they are legends, suspected shams, or subjects of intense scientific inquiry, these ten stories of feral children are truly fascinating.
Romulus and Remus
The legend of Rome’s founders, twin brothers Romulus and Remus, is one of the oldest feral child stories. The earliest written version of this myth was recorded in the 3rd Century BC. Rhea Silvia was the daughter of King Numitor, and the throne was taken over by her evil uncle, Amulius. He was afraid that his niece would have children that could potentially take over the throne, so he forced Rhea to be a Vestal Virgin, and she had a duty to watch over a sacred fire in the temple, and remain chaste. However, Rhea got pregnant anyway.
Amulius was furious, so Rhea insisted that she did not have sex with a man, and that the god Mars was the father of her children. Of course, this could have just been a lie made up by a young woman, because the punishment for breaking the rules as a Vestal Virgin were incredibly harsh. She gave birth to twin boys, and Amulius demanded that they should be left out to die of exposure on the bank of the River Tiber.
As the legend goes, a female wolf heard the crying babies, and took care of Romulus and Remus as if they were her own puppies. In some Disney-like versions of the story, even birds helped to bring food to these royal babies. Later, they were found by a shepherd named Faustulus. He rescued the boys and brought them home to his wife, Acca Larentia. When the boys grew up, they figured out that they were the true heirs to the throne, and defeated their evil great-uncle Amulius.
Some historians argue that the word “lupa” meant both “wolf” and was a nickname for prostitutes. So it is very possible that they were suggesting that their adoptive mother was a sex worker, and that either version of the Romulus and Remus origin story could have been a form of anti-Roman propaganda in order to belittle the empire’s practices. However, the popular remembrance of the story is that of two boys left in the wild, and the canine came to save them. This has been depicted in paintings and statues for centuries.
Valentine and Orson
A large 14th Century text called The Matter of France tells the stories and legends surrounding Charlemagne’s reign. One of the stories is of Valentine and Orsos. A young woman named Bellissant was Charlemagne’s daughter, and she married the emperor of Greece. She gave birth to twin boys, Valentine and Orson. The High Priest of the Court told the Emperor that his wife was cheating on him, and that the babies were not his. Even though this was an evil lie concocted by the priest, Bellissant believed him, and banished his wife and children to live with her older brother, Pepin, who was also a reject in his own way. Pepin was Charlemagne’s eldest son, and he was born a hunchback. Charlemagne blamed his wife for producing defective offspring, so he married another woman and disinherited Pepin from becoming the next king of France.
On her journey through the forest with her two babies, a bear attacked them and carried the children away. Bellissant chased down the bear, but she could not find her sons. Valentine was living on his own, and learned how to hunt as a toddler. Bellissant returned to the woods to search for her boys, and spotted Valentine. She took him back to Pepin’s court, where he grew up in a life of luxury.
Orson was not so lucky. He was captured by the bear and carried back to its den. Bellissant assumed that the bear must have taken her son as meat for her cubs, but this bear decided to raise him as if he were one of her own. Orson grows up with the bears and becomes a “wild man” who haunts the forest. Meanwhile, Valentine grew up to become a well-respected Knight in his uncle Pepin’s court. If anything, his short time spent in the wild only made him stronger and braver than his peers.
During his time as a knight, Valentine hears a rumor that there is a wild man living in the woods who has been terrorizing the villagers. He was not afraid of the forest, so he went to conquest the beast. Instead of finding a monster, he sees a man who looks exactly like himself, except that he has a long beard and acts like an animal. Valentine instantly realizes that this must be his long-lost twin. Instead of killing him, Valentine captures Orson, and manages to tame him just enough to become his servant. He is too far gone to learn human language and become fully integrated into human life.
A boy named Kaspar Hauser was born in Germany sometime around 1812, but no one can be sure of his exact age. In 1828, he was found as a teenager wandering around the streets of Nuremberg holding a note. The letter said that he never left the house a day in his life, but he wanted to be a member of the cavalry, like his father. He had a very small German vocabulary, and he kept repeating the words “horse”, “don’t know”, and a rehearsed sentence of; “I want to be a cavalryman, as my father was.” He did not know how to read or write, except for his own name. Since he failed to explain who he was or where he came from, he spent two months in prison as a vagabond.
Despite the fact that some of the people in Nuremberg were suspicious of his true origin story, a local professor named George Daumer took pity on Kaspar Hauser, and decided to adopt him. Daumer taught him how to speak, read, and write. They also discovered that Kaspar was a natural artist, and he could draw incredibly well. He did not have a developmental disability, but he had been denied socialization and education his entire life.
After he learned how to speak German, Kaspar claimed that he was raised on total isolation in a dungeon. He slept on straw, and was given wooden toys to play with. Every morning, he woke up to see bread and water waiting for him to eat, but he never interacted with anyone. Sometimes, he would be drugged and fall asleep for a long time. While we will never know the full details of the truth behind Kaspar Hauser’s upbringing, the one thing that cannot be denied is that he was abused in some way, and kept away from society to the point where it took years of training to help catch him up with his peers.
In 1831, a British man called The Earl of Stanhope heard about Kaspar’s story. He was so fascinated, he wanted to get to the bottom of where the boy actually came from. He spent years gathering witness testimonies, conducting interviews, and even gave money towards Kaspar Hauser’s care. Eventually, he felt as though he had been tricked into believing a false narrative, and came up with his own theory that Kaspar Hauser was the illegitimate son from the House of Baden. However, that theory was later debunked.
People grew tired of Kaspar Hauser, because he was a compulsive liar about almost everything, and he was apparently very manipulative and needy. This should not be surprising, because he grew out without learning social etiquette, but it pissed someone off so much, that they killed him.
In 1833, someone stalked Kaspar Hauser, stabbed him, and left a note written in mirror writing with him, containing a riddle about his identity, signed, “MLO”. His tombstone reads, “ “Here lies Kaspar Hauser, riddle of his time. His birth was unknown, his death mysterious. 1833.”
When she was a young girl, Marina Chapman was kidnapped from her village in Columbia, and abandoned in the jungle when she was just 4 or 5 years old. She thinks that she may have been born in 1950, but she is unsure. She quickly lost all concept of time out in the jungle. Marina remembers crying constantly when she was first abandoned, curled up in a fetal position, feeling scared and unsure of what to do. The Capuchin monkeys were curious, poking her and staring at her, but eventually, the animals accepted her as one of their own.
She watched them swinging from the trees carrying fruit, and she would wait for them to drop some, so she could scoop it up and eat it. During an interview with the BBC, Marina explained that the most comforting thing in the world was when the monkeys would hold her face and groom her, because she felt loved and accepted. She learned how to climb trees, run, and forage for food.
One day, she accidentally ate far too much tamarind, and she began to feel sick. One of the male monkeys noticed what had happened, so he grabbed her, forcing her head near the water to drink. He kept pushing her down until she drank so much, she vomited. She immediately felt better, and later in life she learned that she had been suffering from tamarind toxicity, and the monkey truly was concerned for her health.
When she was approximately 10 or 11 years old, hunters found her in the woods. She could not speak, but she was very beautiful. So they captured her, and sold her to a brothel. At the time, she did not have a name, she could not speak, and she did not understand human etiquette. She saw food all around her, and would grab it, not understanding the concept of money until she had gotten into a lot of trouble. She was able to escape the brothel, and she lived on the streets with other children. At 14, a family chose to adopt her. This family was well-off, and had connections in England, so Marina decided to move there and become a nanny. She met her husband, had children, and started a family.
There are several scientists who doubt the validity of Marina’s story, and some psychologists believe that she went through a horrible childhood trauma, and her subconscious invented the false memory about being raised by monkeys in order to cope.
The Wolf Boy of Hesse
Multiple history books from the 1500’s published the records that were kept by monks in Hesse, Germany throughout the years. One of the most intriguing stories that stands out was about the wolf boy. In the year 1341, a young boy who was approximately 7 to 12 years old was captured by soldiers while he was living with a pack of wolves in the forest. He could not speak, and he walked around on all fours, growling at the humans. He was also able to jump very long distances, and was physically agile.
The boy was brought to live with the monks who cared for orphaned children. They attempted to tame and feed the boy in hopes that he could become a good Christian member of society. However, he was very scared, and he spent most of his time hiding under benches. He also tried to run away, and would have most likely returned to his pack, but they never allowed him to leave.
The boy could not stand up straight, and walked around on all fours. He refused to eat human food, because he was so used to devouring raw meat in the wilderness with the wolves. He quickly became malnourished, and died soon after he was captured. Obviously, since he could not speak, they never learned why the boy was in the forest in the first place. Just three years later, another boy was found in the woods in the same region. This time, the monks knew that they should allow him to eat raw meat and not try to force too much change on him that he wasn’t capable of. This second child lived to be 80 years old.
Jean of Liege
During the 17th Century, a young boy named Jean ran away from his home when enemy soldiers were raiding his village when he was just 5 years old near Liege, Belgium, and hid in the woods. Even when the danger had passed, he was still scared to come out of hiding, for fear that these bad men were going to kill him. He remembers hearing his parents calling his name looking for him, but he never responded, unsure if he could trust what he was hearing. Even before the attack, he was a very nervous boy who was afraid of people and liked being alone, and the idea that people were going to hurt him made him avoid them all together. Eventually, he began to forget how to speak, and his sense of smell heightened. He quickly learned how to scavenge for fruit and edible roots.
Jean never lived with any animals, but he became more and more wild as the years went on. He walked around naked, and his body hair grew long, all over his body. When he was approximately 20 years old, people in Liege spotted him and thought that he was a mythological creature called a satyre, which is half goat and half man. He was eventually found by a woman who realized that he was human. She took him in, gave him clothes, and taught him how to speak, with the help of the vocabulary he remembered from early childhood. Scholars compared their relationship to that of like a dog and his master, because he followed this woman around loyally, and did not fully shake his wild nature. A scholar named Sir Kenelm Digby learned about the story of Jean, and wrote about the incident in his publications.
Wild Peter of Hanover
King George was ruling over England in 1725, and when he heard the news that a young feral child had been found in the forest near Hanover, Germany, he wanted to keep the boy as a pet. This child walked on all fours, ate with his hands, and could not speak. He was given the name “Peter”, and he was approximately 12 years old when he arrived at the palace to become a royal human pet. He hated wearing clothes, and struggled with servants who were tasked at dressing him in a green suit every day. He loved shiny objects, and once tried to steal a pocket watch. Instead of sleeping in a bed, he prefered curling up in the corner of the room on the floor.
Peter’s wild behavior was amusing for a while, but the king grew tired of dealing with it on a daily basis. He paid for the boy to live at a farm in the countryside. The farmer was kind to Peter, and he made him a collar to wear around his neck, like a dog. This was not to be cruel or treat him like a slave. It was simply because they knew Peter had a tendency to wander off, and they did not want him to be lost. The collar was inscribed with a message that said, “Peter the Wild Man of Hanover. Whoever will bring him to Mr Fenn at Berkhamsted shall be paid for their trouble.” When he died, he was given a headstone, and people still leave him flowers to this day.
At the time, no one could explain the wild behavior Peter was exhibiting, and they assumed that he must have been raised by animals in the woods. Modern-day analysts believe that Peter may have had Pitt-Hopkins Syndrome. Children who suffer from Pitt-Hopkins Syndrome all have similar facial features. Modern-day photographs of children with this disease can be compared to the portrait that had been painted of Peter, and it is clear to see the similarities. These children have a developmental disability, which would explain Peter’s wild behavior. In the past, there was little to no help for people with disabilities, and parents who could not cope with the responsibility of a child with special needs would often abandon them in the woods. Or maybe Peter simply wandered off, and his parents did make him a collar to help him return home.
The forest of Uttar Pradesh in India is thick with vegetation and wild animals, but hunters did not expect to come across a young boy who was 5 or 6 years old walking on all fours together with a pack of wolves in 1872. When they tried to bring the boy with them, the wolves were fiercely trying to protect him, and then ran away to their den. They had no choice but to set a fire near the entrance of the den, which filled the cave with smoke and made the wolves run out. They shot the wolves and captured the child to bring him back to civilization.
The boy was brought to an orphanage and given the name Dina Sanichar. He did not want to socialize with other humans, and he only made animal noises. He ate raw meat and chewed on the bones, like a wolf. Yet another feral child was found in the jungle and brought to the same orphanage, and Sanichar suddenly found a friend. The two became inseparable, which was a sign to doctors that while he could not feel a social connection to other humans, he truly did identify himself as an animal. Dina Sanichar, and the other “wolf children” found in India became the real-life inspiration for the character Mowgli from The Jungle Book. He spent another 20 years in captivity, and during the time he spent with humans, the most he was able to do was stand up straight on two feet, get dressed on his own, and eat off of a plate.
Amala and Kamala
In 1920, two young “wolf girls” were found living in the wilderness together in Midnapore, India. They were adopted by a man named Reverend Singh, and they lived together with his wife and biological children. He kept a detailed 150-page journal about his progress trying to teach them how to cope with civilization, along with photographs.
When the two girls went into Reverend Sigh’s care, Kamala was around 8 to 10 years old, and Amala was only 18 months old. According to his journal entries, he discovered the children living in a wolve’s den. They could see well at night, and were mostly nocturnal. Kamala was able to run at high speeds on all fours, and she crouched down to lap up food off the floor. Reverend Singh tried to coax her to stand by placing food on top of tables, and she slowly got used to bending her limbs. The first human food that the girls were given to eat was cake, and their love of the sweets helped them to becoming willing to experiment with other human foods.
Since Amala was still a baby when she was found, it was easier to raise her as a normal human child. For Kamala, it was as if her mind was never allowed to develop past infancy. In the first three years, she was able to communicate by nodding her head “yes” or “no”, and she calmed down and learned to socialize more with Reverend Sigh’s wife and children to become part of the family. It took years for her to speak, but she eventually developed normally.
Since all of the evidence about Amala and Kamala’s lives only comes from one source, many people believe that Reverend Sigh was inspired by the true story of Dina Sanichar, and lied about the girl’s true origins in order to get media attention. According to one source, the girls were actually abused by their parents and locked in a cage in the jungle, which is where the Reverend rescued them. They claim that the story about the wolves were fictional. However, even if it was true that they were kept in a cage their entire lives, it would still qualify them as feral children who were raised in total isolation.
Victor of Aveyron
In the year 1800, a young boy who was roughly 12 years old was found naked and dirty in the forest of Aveyron, France. When doctors examined him, they saw a scar on his neck that resembled a knife wound. It would see that his whoever left him in the woods meant for him to die there, but he miraculously survived against overwhelming odds. Because of this trauma, he was suspicious and afraid of humans.
The boy could not speak, so a doctor named Jean Itard from Paris was up for the challenge of attempting to tame him. Dr. Itard worked with the deaf and the blind, and while there was no amount of experience that could help someone domesticate a feral child, he took on the boy as a patient, and named him Victor. He learned to wear clothes, ate with forks, knives, and spoons at a table, and could eventually identify a few written words, but that was the extent of what Dr. Itard was able to accomplish. He would often get frustrated by Victor’s wild nature and beat him, especially when the young boy began to go through puberty. He had no sense of what was or was not a socially acceptable way to deal with sexual urges, and it became nearly impossible to bring him out in public.
Dr. Itard had devoted his entire career to taming Victor, and even wrote a book about the experience. However, it eventually became too consuming and overwhelming for the man to bear the burden of Victor’s developmental delays. His story inspired books and a movie called The Wild Child, which dramatized and fictionalized much of what actually happened in his life.
Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:
Encounters with Wild Children: Temptation and Disappointment in the Study of Human Nature. Adriana S. Benzaquén. McGill-Queen’s Press. 2006.
Savage Girls and Wild Boys: A History of Feral Children. Michael Newton. Macmillan. 2014.
Was Marina Chapman Really Brought Up By Monkeys? Simon Hattenstone. The Guardian. April 13, 2013.
Who Was Peter The Wild Boy? Megan Lane. BBC. August 8, 2011.
Literally raised by wolves, this Indian boy was found wandering in the wilderness as a six-year-old. Laura Smith. Timeline. November 20th, 2017.
Who Is The Real Savage? Kathryn Harrison. The New York Times. November 15, 1998.
Wolf Children. Lucien Malson. NYU Press. 1972.
The Diary of the Wolf-Children of Midnapore. Reverend J. A. L. Singh. Midnapore Government Archives. 1920.