By Zaain Ahmed Hameed, 12A
Have you watched, or read about, Mowgli? Or Tarzan? Or perhaps you know of the story of Shasta of the Wolves. What do all these stories have in common?
Yes: all three stories are about a child raised by animals. It is not uncommon to see this depicted in fiction, even in myths and legends. People have been fascinated by human-animal interactions, and the ability of animals to bring up human children, for centuries.
The legend surrounding the foundation of the city Rome is proof enough. In Roman mythology, Romulus and Remus were twin brothers who grew up in the care of a she-wolf. Later on, Romulus founded the Roman Kingdom—although not before killing Remus.
Throughout history, accounts of wild or ‘feral children’ have captivated the human imagination. A feral child, by definition, is a human child who has lived isolated from any human contact from a very young age, and is therefore someone who has been inadequately socialised. This results in the child having little, or sometimes no, experience with human care, behaviour, and language.
They may be unable to walk upright or use a toilet, and face many difficulties in learning human languages. They often seem mentally impaired, and sometimes do not have any interest in any ‘normal’ human activity. They are also unable to eat cooked food, as most of them are accustomed to eating raw meat.
Historically, there have been many cases of feral children. One of them is the infamous case of Genie.
Genie—which is not her real name, but a pseudonym used for her protection—was brought up in an isolated room, strapped to a child’s toilet or bound in a crib. Her father decided to keep her as socially isolated due to his belief that Genie was intellectually disabled. Once rescued, psychologists attempted to help Genie develop language and basic social skills, but she remained severely delayed for her the rest of her life.
There are many other such cases. Vanya Yudin, a seven-year-old boy, was found to have spent his entire life living in a tiny, two-bedroom apartment surrounded by birds. His mother never spoke to him and treated him as a pet; Vanya was thus unable to communicate except by chirping and flapping his arms like wings.
Natasha was a five-year-old girl who spent her entire life locked in a room with cats and dogs, and had no access to heat, water, or the sewage system. When she was found, she could not speak, and would jump at the door and bark.
Oxana Malaya was another such child. For 5 years—until she was 8 years old—Oxana Malaya was neglected by her alcoholic parents and lived with dogs. By the time she was found, she was unable to talk, ran around on all fours barking, slept on the floor, and ate directly with her mouth instead of using her hands.
Sociobiologists, or biogrammers, say that the social environment plays little to no role in the development of human behaviour—instead, humans are born with a tendency, or instinct, towards certain behaviours.
Yet, if behaviour is instinctive, then why are feral children so different from other human beings? And when they are brought back into society, why do they struggle to learn and pick up on ‘normal’ human behaviour?
‘Father hit arm. Big wood. Genie cry… Not spit. Father. Hit face—spit. Father hit big stick. Father is angry. Father hit Genie big stick. Father take piece wood hit. Cry. Father make me cry. Father is dead.’