Written by Samantha Hurn
I recently became a first-time mother. In addition to my daughter, Myrtle, I share my home with a motley collection of rescued animals including dogs, cats, horses, chickens and pigs. This multi-species, multi-generational co-habitation – along with the release of a new adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book – left me thinking about the phenomena of feral children, a topic I had considered in my book about human-animal interactions more generally. Certainly in some exceptional circumstances I can now appreciate how it might be possible for a human child to be cared for by a non-human surrogate.
In Kipling’s original The Jungle Book, published in 1894, the “man-cub” Mowgli is taken in by a wolf pack after he is separated from his human parents by Shere Kahn, the tiger. The choice of wolves as parental stand-ins for the lost human toddler is arguably more plausible than him being taken in by the Indian rock python Kaa, who, contrary to portrayal on screen as a villain, is one of Mowgli’s friends and mentors in the book – although there are some documented cases of children being befriended by benevolent pythons.
The canidae family, which include wolves, dogs, and foxes, are the classic surrogate carers for feral human children, featuring regularly in mythological as well as historical and ethnographic accounts. The alleged ability of these animals to raise human children has ancient antecedents in the legends surrounding the foundation of Rome when twins Romulus and Remus were suckled by a she-wolf.
Throughout history, accounts of so-called “feral children” have captivated the attention of public and academic audiences alike. The “wolf children of Midnapore” is a particularly well-known historical case, where two young girls were found living with a she-wolf and her cubs. The girls did not speak (but howled), moved on all fours, and when they were taken to a local orphanage, preferred the company of the resident dogs to the other children. The persistence of isolated but documented instances of humans raised by or alongside animals continues to fuel our interest.