Last July, a woman was reunited with her family after having been separated from them for 38 years. Reportedly, the woman, Chhaidy, disappeared at the age of 4 from her village in Theiva, a small village in India bordering Myanmar. She survived on her own, living in the jungle with limited human contact. Throughout her disappearance, people in nearby villages and even across the border in Myanmar would occasionally catch sight of her in the jungle. Sometimes they would trap her and provide her with food and shelter, but she would always manage to run away. News would travel back to her family in India of sightings of a “jungle-girl” in Myanmar who bore a strong resemblance to the missing child.1 Khaila, the father of the missing girl, raised funds to travel to Myanmar to verify if Chhaidy was indeed his daughter. When he met her, Chhaidy barely acknowledged him at first, had extremely limited vocabulary and communicated mostly in grunts and gestures.
The story of Chhaidy is a modern day example of a feral child, or a child who has been isolated from human contact. Stories of feral children have been common throughout history, although some researchers believe that many famous cases are actually hoaxes or urban legends with little scientific corroboration. Psychologist Douglas Candland argues that, in some cases, non-feral disabled children were exploited and publicized as feral to gain fame and funds for their caretakers. While it may be difficult to determine genuine cases, they do exist and can generate a great deal of scientific interest.2
Many people are familiar with fictional tales of wild children such as Mowgli or Tarzan; although raised by animals, they are depicted as perfectly healthy and of normal human intelligence. Unfortunately, their stories do not correspond to the reality for most feral children. Due to isolation and lack of proper care, many feral children have a host of physical and mental disabilities. They may be incapable of basic human interaction and unable to develop normal human relationships. Most human children develop normal communication skills through continuous observation and reinforcing behavioral signals from those around them. Feral children have missed out on these formative experiences during early childhood, a time in which their nervous systems are primed toward developing language skills.3 It takes more than a few months of intensive care and therapy to rehabilitate these children, many of whom will never fully function in human society.4
Feral children are often products of abusive homes and neglectful parents. One of the most famous cases of feral children is Genie, a child who was strapped to a potty chair for the first 13 years of her life. She grew up in a home with an extremely domineering and abusive father, who isolated Genie from all outside contact; he would not speak to her nor allow her mother and brother to do so. When she was discovered, Genie was infantile and almost entirely silent due to her abusive upbringing. She would constantly spit, sniff, and claw, and had developed a distinct “bunny walk.”5,6
In some cases, feral children would run away and befriend animals for survival , sometimes even acquiring traits of their adoptive animal families.7 While it has not been scientifically confirmed whether humans can be nurtured or raised by animals, humans can develop strong bonds and symbiotic relationships with them. One instance of this is the case of Oxana Malaya, known as the “Dog Girl” of Ukraine. At the age of 8, she was discovered living with a pack of dogs for 5 years barking and walking on all fours. Her explanation was that “Mum had too many kids. We didn’t have enough beds, so I crawled to the dog and started living with her,” and “I would talk to [the dogs], they would bark and I would repeat it. That was our way of communication.”6 There is also John Ssebunya, known as the “Monkey Boy of Uganda.” At the age of 3, he ran away into the forest after witnessing the murder of his mother. Ssebunya befriended a group of vervet monkeys recalling that, “It was very frightening, but then I saw the monkeys and they brought all this food to me.”8 He traveled with them and adapted many of their traits, such as swinging from trees; he even developed thick hair covering his entire body (possibly due to malnourishment).8
In spite of their animal-like behaviors and stunted development, feral children can teach us a lot about what it means to be human. They demonstrate how nurture and socialization can play an integral role in shaping our behaviors, language, and our ability to relate to others. Studies conducted on these children have influenced theories on psychoanalysis, behaviorism, and phenomenology.2 Many studies have led to the development of new methods for teaching children with learning disabilities.7
While the situation may seem grim for many of these children, some of them are able to function (in a limited capacity) in society. Genie was able to acquire vocabulary at a rapid rate, showed interest in music, and developed complex hand gestures.5 However, her situation regressed after suffering abuse and neglect in foster homes. In contrast, Oxana Malaya is doing quite well. She has developed language skills, cooperates well with others, and shows interest in the world around her. John Ssebunya has also learned how to walk upright, can communicate fairly well, and has joined a children’s choir.8 In spite of relatively successful rehabilitation efforts, Oxana and John both say that they are still more comfortable with animals than with humans.
As for Chhaidy, she went back with Khaila to live with her family in India. While her behavior is childlike and her vocabulary limited, she seems to enjoy interacting with others and can do basic household tasks.1 Reportedly, she has acclimated fairly well to her surroundings with little medical or psychological intervention. While this seems implausible given current research, Chhaidy’s occasional contact with humans throughout her life may have made it easier to facilitate her transition into human society. Due to her limited language capacity, there is much to her story that is missing. Hopefully, more about her life will be discovered in the years to come.
- Bhutia, Lhendup G. “Mizoram’s Wild Flower.” OPEN Magazine. Last modified August 25, 2012. Accessed November 20, 2012.
- Candland, Douglas K. Feral Children and Clever Animals: Reflections on Human Nature. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.
- Siegler, Robert. How Children Develop, Exploring Child Develop Student Media Tool Kit & Scientific American Reader to Accompany How Children Develop. New York: Worth Publishers, 2006.
- Ochota , Mary Ann. “Anthropology.” Feral Children: An anthropology of wild, savage and feral children. Accessed November 20, 2012.
- Cronkite, Walter.”NOVA Transcripts: Secret of the Wild Child.” PBS: Public Broadcasting Service. Last modified March 4, 1997. Accessed November 20, 2012.
- Brown, Tara. “Wild child.” Sixty Minutes – Home. Last modified August 6, 2006. Accessed 20, 2012.
- Stewart, Heather. “Neuroscience for Kids – Neuroscience Movies.” UW Faculty Web Server. Accessed November 20, 2012.
- BBC NEWS. “Savage girls and wild boys.” BBC News – Science/Nature, February 8, 2002. Blog. Accessed November 20, 2012.
- Image credit (public domain): “Jungle Tales of Tarzan” book illustration. Wikimedia Commons. Accessed January 29, 2013.