We need to discuss one extremely rare and harsh environment children grow up in—feral childhood. Feral Children are wild or untamed children who grow up without typical adult socialization influences. They are rare because most human newborns will not typically survive if they are not cared for by an older individual. One of the earliest documented sociological studies of an isolated feral child was reported on by Kingsley Davis in 1940. He discussed two similar cases of Anna and Isabelle. Anna was a five year old girl when she was discovered. She lived for years isolated in an attic and kept barely alive. Anna only learned a few basic life skills before she died at age 10. Isabelle was also isolated, but in her case she had the company of her deaf and mute mother. When Isabelle was discovered at age six she quickly learned the basic human social skills needed and was able to eventually attend school. Davis attributes the difference in outcome to nutrition and the fact that Isabelle had at least some social interaction with her mother. (See Davis, K. 1940 “Extreme Social Isolation of A Child” in The American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 45, No. 4 (Jan., 1940), pp. 554-565 Published by: The University of Chicago Press; Davis, K. 1949 “Human Society by McMillan Pub. New York; and Davis, K. (1993, “Final Note on a Case of extreme Isolation” Irvington Pub. CA.)
In rare cases, human feral children have survived and documentation of their feral childhood is available. See Feral Children.com or http://www.feralchildren.com/en/index.php . This website discusses three categories of feral children: 1) Children raised in isolation; 2) children raised in confinement; and 3) children raised by animals (much less common). They also refute hoaxes of feral children which are not true. To grow up feral is perhaps the cruelest version of child abuse because the crucial primary socialization does not occur. This means that pubescent feral children lack a sense of self-concept; a pattern of multiple attachments and significant others; probable lack of awareness of self, others, groups, and society; and ultimately a void where socialization and acculturation should be.
A few movies are available that portray the complications of being a feral child, especially when he or she tries to interact with socialized members of society. Nell is based on a true story about a Girl who grew up alone in the Carolina back woods after her mother and sister died. The Young Savage of Aveyron (France), is a true story about a French boy discovered in the woods and taken into the care of a physician. Tarzan and Jungle Book is believed to be inspired by true accounts of feral children raised by animals. For example, Amala (8 years old) and Kamala (1 ½ years old) were discovered living with wolves (I know it sounds fantastic, but go with me on this) in Mindapore, India in 1920. Photographs are available in various text and Websites. I’ve included an artist sketch below.
You already know that most humans can’t co-exist with wolves and other carnivorous animals. It is rare to survive such an encounter, especially for 18 month old children. Yet, cross-species nurturing has been documented from time to time (e.g., dogs nurtured kittens and pigs).
As a side note on human-carnivorous animal co-habitation in the wild, there’s a true account of a heart-rending story of a naturalist and Grizzly activist, Timothy Treadwell and his partner Amie Huguenard who moved to Alaska and lived with Grizzly Bears, as though he’d become one of them. It has been made into a documentary and TV Series. Timothy documented his success in living among and with the bears. However, he was killed in 2003 by a rogue Grizzly. (movie called “Grizzly Man”, 2005).
Another Feral child was discovered in 1970 in a Los Angeles suburb. A neighbor reported that a child was locked in the back of a house. Police discovered a girl that was eventually nicknamed “Genie” (a genie pops out of a bottle and emerges into society without having really been raised in society). Genie was about 12. Nova created a documentary on her called “Genie, Anatomy of a Wild Child.” In it you see what Feral really means in the deprivation of acting, understanding, experiencing, and living without having been socialized. I’ve included an artist sketch of Genie.
Genie’s hair was cut short to keep her from eating it. Even though she was chained to a potty chair her entire life, she needed to wear diapers. She spat, clawed, rubbed, and self-groomed more like an animal than a human. She had to be taught the basics of everything and she did learn, but nowhere near at the capacity of an average child.
George Herbert Mead argued that the Self emerged out of social interactions as a result of countless symbolic interactions with other human beings. To Mead, play and playful interactions laid the foundation of becoming human and gaining our sense of self. Knowing that, how troubling must it be for children kept in isolation to play, gain the experiences through interaction, and come to know their Self?
To better understand “Feral” by contrasting it to the animal kingdom, check out the American Humane Society where they address the issue of feral animals http://www.americanhumane.org/site/PageServer. They assist in the rescue of hundreds of thousands of animals each year, many of which were born without families or owners and therefore behave more instinctively than trained.