In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Feral and "Wild" Children

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Natural History and Anthropology
  • Early Cases
  • Connections to Autism and “Feral Child” Syndrome

Childhood Studies Feral and "Wild" Children
Michael Newton
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 May 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 May 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791231-0140


The term feral children has been taken as applying to those who have endured three very different kinds of childhood experience. In one case, the term covers “children of nature,” that is, those who have lived in a solitary state in the countryside. Closely related to such individuals are those children who have been reared for a while by animals, most notably wolves or bears, though there are also tales of children suckled by gazelle, pigs, sheep, cows, and so on. Yet, the phrase has also been applied to children who have been confined to long periods of isolation within human society, locked up in rooms or dungeons. The common denominator in these tales is the experience of an absolute solitude, the absence of caring human parents, and, very often, the deprivation of language that results from that solitude. As such, for centuries these children have been an object of fascination to philosophers interested in human development, the inception of the political realm, and the origin of language. In more recent times, they have been the subject of study by linguists, anthropologists, and sociologists. Whether “wild children” have truly existed is a matter of some interest; more important here is what they stand for, the ideas and philosophies they evoke, and the fantasies that their supposed existence nurtures. Outside the English-speaking world, the idea of feral children is especially important in French- and German-language texts. However, this bibliography limits itself to sources in English, including translations of Arabic, Latin, French, and German works. Feral children have been central to a number of literary works, from William Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale (1610–1611) to Thomas Day’s The History of Little Jack (1788), and from Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Books (1895–1896) to Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Tarzan of the Apes (1914). Authors have in several instances turned true stories of feral children into fiction, as with Jakob Wassermann’s Caspar Hauser (1908), Catherine Mary Tennant’s Peter the Wild Boy (1939), and Jill Dawson’s novel based on the Wild Boy of Aveyron, Wild Boy (2003). Similarly, several excellent films have been produced on the subject, such as François Truffaut’s L’Enfant sauvage (1970), Werner Herzog’s Jeder für sich und Gott gegen alle (1974), and a number of other successful works, such as Michael Apted’s Nell (1994) or even the Disney-animated classic, The Jungle Book (Wolfgang Reitherman 1967). It is beyond the scope of this bibliography to make full mention of these works; however, it is clear that they demonstrate that a fascination with feral children goes beyond the limits of academic discourse.

General Overviews

Several books offer an overview of the feral child phenomenon. Those that do take one of three approaches: the psychological (Candland 1993), the philosophical (Malson 1972), or the cultural historical (such as Benzaquén 2006 and Douthwaite 2002). Some works, such as Abello 1970, are concerned with the veracity of such stories; others attempt to use the feral child as an element in an argument concerning human nature. Singh and Zingg 1942 and Newton 2002 provide an overview of the major case histories; in particular, the author of Newton 2002 is intrigued by the relationships between “feral children” and their educators. Kidd 2005 explores how, in America beginning in the late 19th century, the idea of the feral child influenced ideas of development for boys in general.

  • Abello, V. B. “Wolf Children: Truth or Fallacy?” Clinical Pediatrics 9.7 (July 1970): 425–429.

    DOI: 10.1177/000992287000900713

    Abello lists the major case histories of children being reared apparently by wild animals and comes to the conclusion that such stories are mostly dubious, the children more likely being damaged by “idiocy or congenital feeblemindedness” (p. 429).

  • Benzaquén, Adriana S. Encounters with Wild Children: Temptation and Disappointment in the Study of Human Nature. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2006.

    A wide-ranging, admirably well-researched, and thought-provoking book that sets out to account for the fascination wrought by “wild children” (she questions the existence of the category itself) as well as considering their place in cultural debates and practices.

  • Candland, Douglas Keith. Feral Children and Clever Animals. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

    From a clinical psychologist’s standpoint, this is perhaps the best introduction to the scientific approach to such children. It breaks down distinctions between human beings and other animals by exploring examples, including the Wild Boy of Aveyron, Kaspar Hauser, and Kamala and Amala as well as the case histories of animals who have been taught to speak, such as “Clever Hans,” a horse, or Koko, a gorilla.

  • Douthwaite, Julia. The Wild Girl, Natural Man and the Monster: Dangerous Experiments in the Age of Enlightenment. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002.

    DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226160573.001.0001

    This work concentrates on 18th-century accounts, notably that of the Savage Girl of Champagne, exploring ideas of gender and scenarios of domination and resistance in relation to feral children.

  • Kidd, Kenneth. Making American Boys: Boyology and the Feral Tale. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005.

    Taking the United States from the late 19th century to the present day, Kidd shows the importance of feral children stories to the understanding of boyhood development and to social practices designed to foster that development.

  • Malson, Lucien. Wolf Children. Translated by Edmund Fawcett, Peter Ayrton, and Joan White. London: NLB, 1972.

    Malson presents a reading of feral children, which argues that human beings have no nature since human nature can appear only in the artificial context of society. Malson also makes use of Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s idea that without language the feral child would be unable to form a sense of self, since speech symbolizes and enacts a condition of reciprocity. Originally published in 1964.

  • Newton, Michael. Savage Girls and Wild Boys: A History of Feral Children. London: Faber and Faber, 2002.

    This book offers a biographical and cultural-historical exploration of the cases of Peter the Wild Boy, Memmie Le Blanc (some may think that several of his conclusions are questionable based on the research of Serges Aroules), the Wild Boy of Aveyron, Kaspar Hauser, Kamala and Amala, and Genie, and, more briefly, Ivan Mishukov and John Ssabunnya.

  • Singh, J. A. L., and Robert Mowry Zingg. Wolf-Children and Feral Man. New York: Archon, 1942.

    The first part of this book consists of Singh’s account of Kamala and Amala (see Indian Cases). The second part consists of Zingg’s “Feral Man and Cases of Extreme Isolation,” a work that discusses, in some detail, all the major cases of feral children up to the date of publication. Zingg’s credulity in believing such stories led to his dismissal from his post at the University of Denver.

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