Raised by wolves: the history of feral children
Feral children have fascinated and frightened people for centuries, raising questions about what it means to be human. Richard Sugg shares the stories of some of these wild children – and explains why their return to society was not always a happy one
Join me for a moment at a royal hunt in France, in 1737. Far ahead of the main pack of riders and dogs, one figure hurtles with incredible speed after fleeing hares and rabbits, bringing back prey to the main party before they can catch up. But look closer: the creature racing on all fours across the grass is not a dog but a girl of perhaps 15.
Her name was Memmie le Blanc, known as “the wild girl of Songi” after the village Songy, in north-eastern France, where she was captured in 1731. At that time, she had apparently slept easily in the branches of a tree, sung like a bird, and flown up and down tree trunks with the ease of a squirrel.
Local villagers (writes the author Michael Newton) fled from this feral child as if she were the devil itself. Meanwhile, Lord Monboddo, an early theorist of human evolution, took a more scientific interest in Memmie. When this girl learned (or recovered) language, she revealed that her wild life had not been an entirely easy one.
Ironically, though, it was her assimilation into French civilisation that nearly killed her. Wine and salt caused Memmie to lose her teeth, and heated rooms and cooked food made her dangerously ill. She recovered after a doctor prescribed live pigeons and chickens, from which she sucked the warm blood. On another occasion in a château kitchen she seized a rabbit, stripped off its skin in a flash and devoured it raw. Like other feral children wrenched into the human world, Memmie now learned shame and embarrassment – chiefly from the nuns who sheltered her, and who were unable to wholly conceal their disgust at what she had been.
The real Mowgli
For centuries, stories of our encounters with feral children have fascinated and frightened those who heard them. These hybrid people threatened to puncture the line dividing human from animal, and raised intriguing questions about disgust, shame and language, highlighting too the importance of a three-tofour-year window of development after birth.
Attitudes to Memmie during her lifetime had been split broadly between scientific curiosity and terror or revulsion. Yet by the late 19th century, some observers might more readily romanticise these strange children, as they did with wild nature in general. And so it was that in 1894–95, Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Books gave the world the enduring figure of Mowgli – the boy raised by wolves.
Here, art was almost certainly imitating life. One candidate for the “real Mowgli” was a boy who was found living with wolves in the jungles of Uttar Pradesh in northern India in 1872, and subsequently named Dina Sanichar. But numerous other “wolf children” were documented by officials of the British Raj through the 19th century and beyond.
Around 1847, for example, a boy seen with wolves near Chandour, also in Uttar Pradesh, was captured by a soldier and local villagers. He ate only raw meat and, though he would not permit people to approach him while he fed, he would happily allow a dog to share his food. This child was immune to cold; when given a quilt, he tore it up and ate it. In 1850 he was living at nearby Sultanpoor, and was said to be “very filthy in his habits” and to remain “fond of dogs and jackals”.
Perhaps stranger still was an 1893 account of “a living wild girl come down to Calcutta who was nursed by a bear”. She had been found “sitting by a huge bear near a den in a forest in Jalpaiguri” by labourers, who frightened off the animal with a rifle.
The possibility that the bear actually let the girl drink her milk thrusts us to the heart of the debate about relations between feral children and animals. Were these boys and girls raised by wild creatures, or merely with them – able to enjoy the companionship of animals, but left to fend for themselves when it came to obtaining food? Witnesses who first saw the Chandour boy with a wolf and her cubs stated that the mother seemed to guard all four infants with equal care. Similarly, in 1849 locals saw three cubs and a young boy go down together to drink at the river at Singramau in Uttar Pradesh.
There are many well-documented cases from Britain of one animal or bird fostering another. In the early 20th century, retriever dogs nursed both tiger and polar bear cubs at London Zoo. In the case of very young children who grew up with wolves, their complete dependency implies that the infant humans must indeed have been raised by the wild animals, and it would probably have been easier for a mother wolf to feed them with her own milk than with anything else.
Let’s consider another account. Born into extreme poverty in Andalusia in 1946, Marcos Pantoja suffered an abusive childhood until, at age six, his parents sold him to a local landowner, who put him to work with a goatherd in the Sierra Morena mountains. When the goatherd vanished one day, Pantoja learned to feed himself by watching birds and animals eating berries and roots. He later recalled that at around six or seven, he took shelter from a storm in a cave, alongside a number of wolf cubs. Returning presently with meat, the mother wolf initially growled at Pantoja, before sharing the food with him. And so began the happiest 11 years of Marcos Pantoja’s life. Interviewed by the journalist Matthew Bremner in 2018, Pantoja stated that not only wolves, but foxes and snakes were his friends, and that he spoke with them in a kind of hybrid human-animal language.
By the time police found him in 1965, Pantoja could no longer speak Spanish, though he could understand it. Rudely snatched from his mountain home, he lived in a convent in Madrid before being let loose into “civilised life”. He later recalled that the main things he then learned were embarrassment, fear and distrust, as he was humiliated, cheated and robbed by supposed companions. Given his ability to forage food, Pantoja may well have been raised with rather than by that female wolf. Dependent or not, though, it is clear that the years either side of his wild time were comparatively miserable ones.
Living with the monkeys
In 1954, while Pantoja was beginning his long idyll with his wolf family, a four-year-old girl was playing in her garden in a remote South American village when a hand flashed down and a chemical-soaked cloth was clamped over her mouth. Together with other abducted children, the girl was driven far away, and was being carried through the Colombian rainforest when something panicked her captors – who abandoned her there.
Initially she descended into sheer terror simply learned to live with monkeys. As far as she could later recall, she presently became immune to her own stench or that of the capuchin monkeys, and went about on all fours to the extent that her body began to harden for the purpose. She stopped even thinking in human words and began to learn something of the basic “monkey language” of her companions, making friends with younger monkeys and carrying them on her back.
After several years living among the monkeys, Chapman was recaptured. For some time she suffered a still more abusive life than Pantoja had, at the mercy of a brothel owner and then a mafia family in Cúcuta. Having overcome her disgust at living like an animal, she now had to overcome her terror of human life: the sheer speed of her first night drive, the fear of being drowned during a forced bath, even the terrifying hole filled with water into which she was supposed to relieve herself.
Most extraordinary of all, according to her account, was the day on which she fell violently ill after mistakenly eating poisonous tamarind. An older monkey, which she nicknamed Grandpa for his greying fur and halting movement, carried her to a pool where she initially struggled, fearing he would drown her. Then, she recalled, Grandpa pulled her head up in the water “and looked me straight in the eyes. As I looked back at him… his expression was completely calm. It wasn’t angry, or agitated, or hostile… Perhaps he was trying to tell me something.” She felt he was urging her to drink. She did so, and presently vomited up the toxic food.
Marina Chapman now lives in Bradford, and is married with two children. Recently she told her own story, which some have cast doubt on. There have been questions about the memories of such a young child, though numerous memoirs give equally good recall of events at two or three years old. Meanwhile, the anthropologist Barbara J King has raised questions about Chapman’s memories of capuchin behaviour, though, in my opinion, nothing sufficient to undermine the account as a whole. Many also doubt that animals will care for a human child in this way. But Chapman’s account makes it clear how halting and difficult her relationship with the monkeys initially was.
Overall, there is no question that feral children have existed. Their stories have been documented by every kind of witness (scientists, soldiers, writers, missionaries and civil servants) for hundreds of years. Yet scepticism continues, and perhaps in the modern world, people find the experiences of people like Chapman too unsettling to contemplate. But the fact remains that, as with Pantoja, no one treated Chapman worse than her fellow human beings.
Richard Sugg is the author of 13 books, including A Century of Animal Stories (2017) and Mummies, Cannibals and Vampires (3rd edn, 2020)