Throughout history, children have been cut off from society, abandoned by their caregivers, or thrown into the wild. According to certain reports, some of these outcasts were even raised by animals, though said wild tales often test the limits of plausibility. Called feral children, these individuals show just how important society is to the healthy growth of youngsters. Without human contact, these children were unable to learn to communicate, walk, or become interested in other people around them. All of these tales are tragic: some are all-too-real, while others have the tinge of legend to them.
From Romulus and Remus to the Russian Bird Boy, these are the most infamous stories of feral children. Some have happy endings, but some will certainly break your heart.
10. Danielle "Dani" Lierow
In 2008, the Tampa Bay Times published a special report on one of the most horrifying cases of child abuse and neglect ever recorded. Three years prior, a police officer had responded to a call from a resident of Plant City, Florida. The resident, after having seen the face of a little girl in the window of a run-down rental home nearby, was concerned about possible child abuse. When the authorities arrived at the home, they found a woman living in a nest of cockroaches, filth, and spiderwebs, with food and feces smeared on the walls. In this midst of this horrific scene was then-six-year-old Danielle, severely malnourished and wearing a soiled diaper.
Danielle was immediately taken from her mother’s custody and sent to the hospital for care and observation. According to the Tampa Bay Times, doctors had no way of knowing the extent of what Danielle had endured. But based on what they had seen, they surmised that she “had never been cared for beyond basic sustenance. Hard as it was to imagine, they doubted she had ever been taken out in the sun, sung to sleep, even hugged or held.” This extreme abuse and neglect had caused Danielle to retreat into herself, her behavior and skills similar to that of an infant. Doctors declared that her abuse would leave her permanently and severely disabled.
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Luckily, Danielle’s story has a happy ending. In 2007, she was adopted by a couple, Bernie and Diane Lierow. They called her “Dani,” brought her into a loving home, and attempted to rehabilitate this horrifically abused little girl. In 2018, the same reporter who initially broke Dani's story, Lane DeGregory visited the young woman, now 19. Dani lives in a group home today, with other residents with mental and developmental disabilities. She is still unable to speak, although she does laugh and recognize her loved ones, including her father, who visits her regularly.
9. Romulus and Remus
Romulus and Remus are the most mythological feral children on this list. Although the details of other wild children may be exaggerated thanks to the distance of time, there is definite historical evidence of their existence; the story of the wolf boys, however, is almost certainly a myth, although their tale may have some historical genesis.
According to Roman mythology, Romulus and Remus were born into the ruling family of Alba Longa, an ancient city in Latium. Shortly after giving birth, their mother, Rhea Silvia, a priestess of Vesta, was ordered to abandon the pair in the Tiber River by her cruel and power-hungry uncle, Amulius. Some versions of the story claim that the twin boys were sired by the god, Mars. Their demi-god status and the nobility of their mother's blood (daughter of the former king) made the boys a dire threat to Amulius, now king.
But the mighty stream kept Romulus and Remus afloat, and they were soon rescued by a she-wolf. The creature let the brothers suckle her milk until a shepherd finally found the boys and raised them into adulthood.
Upon discovering their prestigious lineage, Romulus and Remus tracked down Amulius and murdered him. They then set out to establish a city of their own. Unfortunately, they disagreed as to where they should found it. The argument spilled over into bloody confrontation, and the rest is ancient history. Romulus killed his brother, then went on to found the city–which he named Rome, after himself.
8. Peter the Wild Boy
In 1725, a group of hunters found a feral child wandering the forest near the German town of Hamelin. He crawled on all fours, ate forest plants, and could barely speak. Those who discovered the feral child found him to be completely uncivilized.
By some trick of fate, the boy was transferred to Britain where he was briefly adopted by King George I. All attempts to educate him proved fruitless, though the child grew into adulthood and lived out his life until age 70. It’s now believed that he most likely suffered Pitt-Hopkins syndrome, a rare chromosome disorder that affects normal development.
The chromosome abnormality consists of pronounced physical traits: short stature, hooded eyelids, cupid's bow with a prominent curve to the upper lip, and some fingers on his left hand were fused. Pitt-Hopkins syndrome can also cause severe neurological effects like the inability to develop speech. But with medical knowledge lacking on this front during Georgian England, many saw Peter as a novelty, especially Caroline, Princess of Wales. Soon, he became a symbol in the debate about the meaning of humanity, as was the rage during the Age of Enlightenment. Eventually, Peter's existence outlived the public's interest in him.
He was sent to a farm in Hertfordshire, east of London, where a family was paid for his support. He was well-regarded there until he went missing in 1751, and a large scale search was undertaken. When Peter was found and returned home, the family had a leather collar made for him with his name and the location of the farm to ensure his safety. Peter died in 1785, believed to be about 70 years old–he never learned to speak, although he could reportedly say his own name and that of King George.
7. Marie-Angélique Memmie le Blanc
The tale of the "Wild Girl of Champagne" is considered by some to be wholly fictional. However, there are also historians, like Serge Aroles, who are able to point to archival historical evidence of the existence of Marie-Angélique Memmie le Blanc.
Deep in the French woodlands in the early 1700s, there was a young girl who lived in total isolation. One day, Marie-Angélique, as she came to be known, appeared with a club in her hand, in search of water near the town of Songy in Champagne. Fearful villagers sent a guard dog after her, but Marie-Angélique killed the canine with one fatal blow.
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She retreated to a tree, and only came down for food and water that the villagers left for her. She spoke no French and only attempted to communicate by shrieking. Eventually she was placed under the care of a shepherd and learned to speak French–indicating that she must have spoken some other language before turning feral.
After many years, Marie-Angelique began to remember what led to her wild existence. She claimed that she once lived in a warmer land, was captured, painted black to pass as a slave, and placed on a boat. At some point, she escaped into the forests of France where she survived on raw plants and animals.
6. Victor of Aveyron
At the close of the 18th century, a young French boy was spotted living in the woods. The wild child was clearly fearful of people–after being brought by three hunters to a widow's house for care, the boy escaped, returning to the wilderness for about three years. Eventually, however, he emerged on his own. Lacking language, preferring uncooked food, and covered in scars, it was obvious that he had been wild for most of his life.
He was eventually trained like a dog to a leash and taught to relieve himself outside, but he remained mute, shameless, and primarily interested in escaping. The French government entrusted him to Roche-Ambroise Sicard—director of the Institute for Deaf-Mutes in Paris—who declared that he was totally unresponsive and intractable. Afterwards, a committee of experts headed by Philippe Pine—a founder of psychiatry—decided to send the boy to an asylum because he had been diagnosed as an incurable idiot.
A physician named Jean Marc Gaspard Itard finally took in the boy, naming him Victor. Itard studied Victor for five years. There was vast improvement in Victor's behavior and intelligence. Although the only words Victor ever learned were lait (“milk”) and Dieu (“God”), he did make great progress in learning empathy–one of the traits that Itard believed separated humans from other animals.
5. Kaspar Hauser
A disheveled teenager appeared from the woods with a letter addressed to Captain von Wessenig of Nuremberg, Germany in 1828. The author of the letter claimed the boy had mysteriously appeared as an infant in the year 1812, and that he had never allowed the boy to leave his house until the current year–due to the boy's wish to become a soldier. The anonymous author invited von Wessening to take him in or hang him.
The mystery boy’s vocabulary was limited, but he was able to tell the captain that his name was Kaspar Hauser. The captain took Kaspar to the police, where he was placed under the care of the state, refusing to eat anything but bread and water. By 1832, Kaspar found a job in a small law office and was under the care of a schoolmaster named Johann Georg Meyer.
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One day, Kaspar and Johann had a bitter argument. Five days later, Kaspar came home with a serious stab wound to the chest, to which he succumbed and died. His tombstone read: “Here lies Kaspar Hauser, riddle of his time. His birth unknown, his death mysterious. 1833.”
Some people, contemporaneously and today, believe that Hauser was likely a fraudster. It has been impossible to prove either way, as the man who supposedly kept Hauser confined to a small cell in his home was never identified.
4. Cambodian Jungle Girl
This young girl's identity was a mystery when she was captured in the dense jungle of northeastern Cambodia in 2007. She was naked, caked with dirt, and covered with scars. The woman preferred to crawl rather than walk, and she spoke only three words: “father,” “mother,” and “stomach ache”.
A nearby villager, Sar Yo, came forward to claim the woman was his daughter, Rochom P’ngieng, who had vanished 18 years earlier when she was eight years old. But reporters who visited the woman doubted that she had lived for 18 years in the jungle. Sar Yo did not agree to a DNA test. There were also some signs that the woman may have escaped from some kind of captivity and torture.
Sar Yo died in 2013. Three years later, a Vietnamese man came forward to say the woman was his daughter who had disappeared in 2006—a year before she was discovered—after suffering a mental breakdown. His claim was accepted and the woman, whose real name was Tak, returned with him to Vietnam. She still does not speak. Her birth family reports that she has been mute since birth.
The story of Genie is one of the saddest and best known tales of feral children. Born in California in 1957, Genie’s father soon turned his back on the girl for her mental disabilities, and decided to seclude her from the outside world.
Starting when she was about 20 months old, Genie was locked inside a dark room, where she was usually bound to a crib or strapped to the toilet. Her father prevented her mother and her siblings from interacting with Genie and only rarely fed her. The father was physically abusive to all members of the family, even causing neurological damage to his wife, although Genie would eventually be the one to take the brunt of his anger.
When Genie was 13, her mother was finally able to gather the strength to leave her husband. After moving back into her parents' house, the mother applied for disability benefits, bringing Genie with her. Social workers were immediately worried, and became all the more so when they heard that Genie was in fact 13, not the six or seven years she appeared. They immediately contacted the police, and Genie was taken in as a ward of the court.
Genie knew nothing of language and walked with a strange gait–indicating her motor skills were severely impaired. Although her vision was physically intact, she was unable to focus on anything further than three feet away. She was transferred from state doctor to state doctor in an attempt to study her condition, and hopefully socialize her.
The repeated transfers caused so much stress, that she soon lost what little ability to speak she had possessed when first entering the system. Her father committed suicide soon after the discovery, and when Genie turned 18, her mother cut off all scientists from contacting the family. Updates on Genie’s life are sporadic, but in 2008, ABC News reported that Genie was in the care of the state at a psychiatric hospital, still completely speechless.
2. Russian Bird Boy
In 2008, Russian social services rescued a boy who was being raised as a pet bird by his own mother. His bedroom was a small room filled with cages and birds, with bird food and excrement strewn across the floor. His only method of communication? Chirping like the feathered friends that surrounded him.
The boy was often said to suffer from "Mowgli syndrome": a non-scientific description often used in place of the term feral child, and equally associated with a lack of socialization and communication. His mother never left him without food but refused to speak to him. Reportedly, the boy learned how to chirp to communicate with the creatures that did interact with him–the small birds he shared space with.
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The young boy did attempt to communicate with humans via chirping once extricated from his small avian world. Some reports claim that when the boy believed his chirps were being ignored, he flailed his arms like wings. He has since come into the custody of the state. He temporarily lived in an asylum before being transferred to the center for psychological care.
1. Marina Chapman
Born in Colombia, Marina Chapman asserts that her early childhood was spent completely alone in the jungle–save for the group of Capuchin monkeys who watched over her. She also claims that at about four years old, she was taken from her small village in Colombia and released into the wild, where a group of capuchin monkeys took her in.
She claims to have spent several years living with the troop of primates until she encountered a group of hunters. The hunters promptly sold her to a brothel in the city of Cúcuta, where she eventually became a slave to the mafia.
Marina eventually broke free from her captors and made it to Bradford, England, where she married a scientist and gave birth to two children. She tells her wild story in the autobiography The Girl with No Name. The truth behind her story is unclear. One psychologist believes that while Chapman may deeply and truly believe her own story, it could still be untrue.
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