There are features that occur time and again in feral cases I’ve looked at.
Some of the features point to how a child ended up in such a drastically inhumane situation – family breakdown, violence, alcoholism or drug addiction, political or social unrest in the country, developmental or physical disability in the child….
Some features indicate the amazing ways a human body can adapt…
But other features tell me more about what it means to be WILD in a certain society:
From an anthropological perspective, I suspect that some of the features that capture witnesses’ imaginations are the ones that tell the best story, and best define the child as different, as animal, as distinctly ‘Other’.
The Feral Child talks like an animal:
Certainly children will mimic those around them, and seek company and comfort from whatever source available – so if the most communicative creature in your life is a cow communicating through mooing, then it’s possible you will pick up the habit of making mooing noises yourself. That’s not to say that you think that you are a cow.
We humans are designed to search for meaning in the complex noises we hear – that’s the gift of human language. But a child making noises that sound like an animal’s communication vocalisations, isn’t the same as that child ‘speaking’ in wolf or chicken. Animals do, of course, communicate verbally, sometimes in sophisticated and complicated systems. But they don’t have language in the way humans do. It’s no surprise that we want to make sense of a squawking, gibbering, chirruping child, and attribute some kind of animal language to their vocalisations – it helps us try to make sense of what kind of a creature we’re dealing with.
It’s more likely that the noises we observers interpret as being the meaningful clucking of a chicken-boy, or the howling of a wolf-girl, are the disordered vocalisations of a profoundly damaged child.
The feral child is covered in hair, with long claw-like nails, sharp teeth, and staring eyes:
There is a relatively rare medical condition called hypertrichosis, which literally means ‘overly hairy’. There are a number of causes, some of them hormonal. There is also a possible link between anorexia and malnutrition and unusual hair growth patterns.
So perhaps feral children, living outside of normal human eating patterns, could develop strange fur because of hormone imbalance or dietary deficiency.
It has also been postulated that under extreme environmental conditions, human skin would develop a protective layer. But this is most likely to manifest as hard, thickened skin, and by existing hair getting thicker and coarser. It’s more unlikely that hair would start sprouting out of skin that was previously hairless. So why are so many feral children described as being covered in fur?
In many cultures hair is a signifier of power, morality and humanity. In the USA, Britain and the West, long hair and hairiness can be seen as a sign of freedom (the hippie), of savagery (the caveman), or of a lack of control and discipline (the hippie again!). There are appropriate ways to manage your hair, and what you do with it is a statement to those in your culture – a sign of who you are and what you stand for.
Controlled hair = Civilised, tame, social
out of control hair = savage, wild, non-human.
It’s no accident of language that we talk about ‘taming’ our hair.
The feral child’s hair is out of control, sort of natural, but also disturbing. It reveals the animal side of the human. The nails, teeth and eyes are also details of this. Certainly, children might not know the social etiquette of eye contact, and so appear to stare like animals might, the staring might seem scary or perhaps seem innocent and pure. Long finger- and toenails aren’t a surprising thing if you’ve had no-one to cut them – but in the context of a feral child story, they become claws – dangerous and animal-like. They again indicate how freaky and non-human the child is.
Feral children won’t eat cooked food, they like raw meat and fruit:
Again, another trope of feral stories – where raw is the opposite to civilised. There are many social rules and taboos about eating meat, especially raw meat. It’s a symbolic detail of wildness, with a very visual and visceral image of tearing meat from a carcass. Focusing on the strange eating preferences of a feral child is a way of showing how un-human they are, how far beyond the civilised world of cooking and meal times. Raw meat is savage, primal, wild…just like the humans who eat it.
Whether these kids really have just come out of a wolf’s lair, strolled out of the forest or from somewhere else equally as odd (the neighbour’s shed, the bottom of the garden), the reality is that they are under extreme stress, they are exhibiting a whole range of distressed behaviour – so their refusal to eat cooked food from a spoon is not quite as extraordinary as it first seems.
The other feature of food narratives is that children are sick if they eat ‘human’ food (porridge or other cooked foods). Re-feeding someone suffering extreme malnourishment is a tricky business – feed them the wrong foods, or too much food, and they could die. Again, no surprise then, that these children might refuse food at first. That’s actually one of the more functional responses they’re demonstrating!
Feral children scamper like animals, can climb trees and can see in the dark:
How much can a human body actually adapt to an extreme environment? Humans live across the widest range of habitats in the world compared to all other animals, but that’s because we have clothes, effective shelters, the ability to store food, plan journeys and use complex tools. We also learn from each other, elders and from past experience to ensure survival in remote and hostile terrain.
What about a child, alone, without any help, knowledge or tools? The sad fact is that most children abandoned in forests, forced to live outside with farm animals or away from human settlement probably die. The ones we hear about are the unusual survivors.
The range of temperatures a naked or barely clothed human can survive is much lower – but we can be less affected by cold and heat through conditioning – getting used to the new ‘normal’. If you train yourself to not wear a coat in winter, you’ll eventually be able to withstand colder termperatures without feeling as cold. This is in part due to your body compensating by increasing respiration, heat generation and other regulatory behaviours, in part due to subtle changes of blood flow and fat distribution, and, as you get more used to the conditions, the level of psychological (and therefore physical) stress is reduced.
Senses like hearing, smell and sight can certainly be fine tuned – again, a case of use it or lose it, when it comes to brain development. In the same way that a master wine taster, or a soldier on lookout in a warzone will experience heightened responses to olfactory or visual stimuli respectively, so too would a child living in a high-risk environment.