Stranger Than Fiction:
Bear-Girl, Sheep-Boy, Leopard-Boy and Other Real Feral
Who Make Tarzan Look Tame
~ November 9, 2012
Though most of us are unaware of it, every single face-to-face interaction
we have with another human being contains countless social cues and signals,
from subtle micro-expressions to nuanced body language gestures, collectively
referred to as "social signaling." As Michael J. Arena writes, these "unconscious
social signals" are "evolved from ancient primate signaling mechanisms"
and they help us effectively communicate our "intentions, goals, and values."
These signals are learned through our interactions with other human beings,
so any lack of these interactions, particularly in our developmental years,
can seriously impede our ability to socialize with others. Though quite
rare, more than a few children have been discovered living alone in the
wilderness, and, despite what Hollywood would have us believe, these "feral
children" are often permanently inhibited from acculturating into society
because they were unable to learn these important social signals.
The Strange Truth
There are countless tales of feral children being raised by wild animals
in ancient myths, from Enkidu in the ancient Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh
to Romulus and Remus, the feral twins who supposedly founded Rome. While
the existence of these legendary ferals is disputed, there have been actual
cases of children found living in the wild with all manner of beasts, from
bears to leopards. Here are a selection of the more extraordinary, from
Book of Lists: The Original Compendium of Curious Information, Canadian
Edition by David Wallechinsky, Amy Wallace, Ira Basen, and Jane
Fraumark Bear-Girl (1767) — In 1767 two hunters
captured a girl who attacked them after they shot her bear companion in
the mountains near the village of Fraumark, Hungary. The tall, muscular,
18-year-old girl had lived with bears since infancy. Later she was locked
up in an asylum in the town of Karpfen because she refused to wear clothes
or eat anything but raw meat and tree bark.
Irish Sheep-Boy (1672) — In 1672 a 16-year-old
boy was found trapped in a hunter’s net in the hills of southern Ireland.
Since running away from his parents’ home as a young child, the boy had
lived with a herd of wild sheep. He was healthy and muscular even though
he ate old grass and hay. After his capture he was taken to the Netherlands,
where he was cared for in Amsterdam by Dr. Nicholas Tulp. The boy never
learned human speech, but continued to bleat like a sheep throughout his
Cachari Leopard-Boy (1938) — In 1938 an English
sportsman found an eight-year-old boy living with a leopard and her cubs
in the north Cachar Hills of India. The boy, who had been carried off by
the leopard five years earlier, was returned to his family of peasant farmers.
Although nearly blind, he could identify different individuals and objects
by his extremely well-developed sense of smell.
Saharan Gazelle-Boy (1960) — In September
1960 Basque poet Jean Claude Armen discovered and observed a boy who was
approximately eight years old living with a herd of gazelles in the desert
regions of the Western Sahara. For two months Armen studied the boy, whom
he speculated was the orphaned child of some nomadic Saharan Moorish family.
The boy traveled on all fours, grazed on grass, dug roots, and seemed to
be thoroughly accepted by the gazelles as a member of the herd. Since the
boy appeared happy, Armen left him with his gazelle family. American soldiers
attempted to capture the boy in 1966 and 1970, but without success.
Tarzan of the Apes (1918), Jungle Book (1942),
The Woman (2011), Mama, and World War Z (2013)
Feral children have appeared on screen since the earliest days of cinema,
with Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan being one of the first. The son
of a British lord and lady who were marooned on the coast of Africa by
mutineers, Tarzan eventually returned to civilization with few lingering
feral traits save for his disdain for society. It was recently announced
that Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows director David Yates will
helm an all-new Tarzan movie for Warner Bros.
Mowgli of Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book is another fictional
feral child that has been adapted for the big screen on more than one occasion.
Lost in the Indian jungle, Mowgli is adopted by a pair of wolves and befriends
several jungle creatures, including Bagheera the panther, Baloo the bear
and Kaa the python. Mowgli eventually chooses to return to the village
of his adopted mother as a teenager.
A recent addition to feral fiction is the title "Woman" (Pollyanna
McIntosh) in writer-director Lucky McKee's 2011 horror movie, who behaves
much more like a wild animal than most fictional ferals, biting and even
eating the body parts and organs of her "civilized" captors. Feral children
are also mentioned frequently in Max Brooks' 2006 horror novel World
War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, which has been made into
a major motion picture set to debut in 2013.