Oxana Malaya, Ukraine, 1991: Oxana was found living with dogs in a kennel in 1991. She was eight years old and had lived with the dogs for six years. Her parents were alcoholics and one night, they had left her outside. Looking for warmth, the three year old crawled into the farm kennel and curled up with the mongrel dogs, an act that probably saved her life. When discovered she behaved more like a dog than a human child. She ran on all fours, panted with her tongue out, bared her teeth and barked. Because of her lack of human interaction, she only knew the words “yes” and “no.”
Intensive therapy aided Oxana to learn basic social and verbal skills, but only with the ability of a five year old. Now 30 years old, she now lives in a clinic in Odessa and works with the hospital’s farm animals under the supervision of her carers.
Lobo Wolf Girl, Mexico, 1845/1852: In 1845 a girl was seen running on all fours with a pack of wolves attacking a herd of goats. A year later she was seen with the wolves eating a goat. She was captured but escaped. In 1852, she was seen yet again suckling two wolf cubs, but she ran into the woods. She was never seen again.
For London-based photographer Julia Fullerton-Batten, tales of children abused or deserted by their parents and raised by wild creatures are no longer confined to folklore and storybooks but to tangible records of human history. For Feral Children, the photographer scoured the history books, culling stories of childhoods spent alone, of children who one way or another came into the care of wild beasts. Here, she recounts in pictures the early years of fifteen of young people who indeed were reared by or with animals without the comforts of human contact, lifting them from the pages of textbooks and into a true and pulsating universe all their own.
Fullerton-Batten’s own role as a mother, she suggests, has in some ways become a thread that binds her to these children. She has two small boys, and after hearing each story, she was struck anew by both the trauma sustained by and tenacity exhibited by the fifteen she chose to immortalize in photographs. The knowledge of their pasts was shattering, and she in turn walked a thin line between impassioned storyteller and distanced historian. The toddlers, children and adolescents found here have each a different legend to share; some of them survived, and some learned to speak, move, and interact with the world as their fellow humans do. Others sadly died, and still more remain trapped within that precarious netherworld between civilization and the wilderness, lost to us yet lingering still in the annals of yesterday. We spoke with Fullerton-Batten about the project.
Shamdeo, INDIA, 1972: Shamdeo, a boy aged about four years old, was discovered in a forest in India in 1972. He was playing with wolf cubs. His skin was very dark, and he had sharpened teeth, long hooked fingernails, matted hair and calluses on his palms, elbows and knees. He was fond of chicken-hunting, would eat earth and had a craving for blood. He bonded with dogs. He was finally weaned off eating raw meat, never talked, but learnt some sign language. In 1978 he was admitted to Mother Theresa’s Home for the Destitute and Dying in Lucknow, where he was re-named Pascal. He died in February 1985.
What first inspired you to pursue this series? Was there a specific moment, a story you heard, a person you met?
“Quite by chance about two years ago, I read the book The Girl with No Name. The book tells the incredible true story of Marina Chapman, who as a 5-year old was kidnapped from her home and then left completely alone in a jungle in Columbia. She survived for 5 years by co-existing with a band of capuchin monkeys, living a completely feral existence, before being ‘rescued.’
“This inspired me to search further for other cases of feral children. I found that there were quite a number of these. Some cases resulted from children becoming lost, snatched by wild animals, and especially those left or neglected by their parents. The documented cases exist over four of the five continents. Although many occurred in under-developed countries, some of the more extreme cases were found in developed countries. Several centuries-old cases from France and Germany/UK were exceedingly well-documented because of the great interest at the time of the development of speech and social behavior patterns.”
Marina Chapman, Columbia, 1959: Marina was kidnapped in 1954 at 5 years of age from a remote South American village and left by her kidnappers in the jungle. She lived with a family small, capuchin monkeys for five years before she was discovered by hunters. She ate berries, roots and bananas dropped by the monkeys; slept in holes in trees and walked on all fours, like the monkeys. One time, she got bad food poisoning. An elderly monkey led her to a pool of water and forced her to drink, she vomited and began to recover. She was befriended by the young monkeys and learned from them to climb trees and what was safe to eat. She would sit in the trees, play, and groom with them.
Marina had lost her language completely by the time she was rescued by hunters. She was sold by the hunters into a brothel, escaped and lived as a street urchin. Next she was enslaved by a mafia-style family, before being saved by a neighbor, who sent her to Bogotá to live with her daughter and son-in-law. They adopted Marina alongside their five natural children. When Marina reached her mid-teens, she was offered a job as a housekeeper and nanny by another family member. The family with Marina moved to Bradford, Yorkshire in the UK in 1977, where she settled. She married and had children. Marina and her younger daughter, Vanessa James, co-authored a book about her feral experiences, and those afterwards – The Girl With No Name.
Madina, Russia, 2013: Madina lived with dogs from birth until she was 3 years old, sharing their food, playing with them, and sleeping with them when it was cold in winter. When social workers found her in 2013, she was naked, walking on all fours and growling like a dog.
Madina’s father had left soon after her birth. Her mother, 23 years old, took to alcohol. She was frequently too drunk to look after her child and often disappeared. She would frequently invite local alcoholics to visit the house. Her alcoholic mother would sit at the table to eat while her daughter gnawed bones on the floor with the dogs. Madina would run away to a local playground when her mother got angry, but the other children wouldn’t play with her as she could hardly speak and would fight with everyone. So dogs became her best and only friends.
Doctors reported that the Madina is mentally and physically healthy despite her ordeal. There is a good chance that she will have a normal life once she has learned to speak more in line with a child of her age.
How much research went into creating these images? How deeply did you come to know these children and their stories?
“I spent many months researching the subject matter meticulously with the goal to make the scenarios as authentic as possible. I consulted Mary-Ann Ochota, an anthropologist and broadcaster, who had already done a lot of research on feral children for a BBC program. She has also travelled to Fiji, Uganda and the Ukraine to meet three of the feral children who are now adults. She was incredibly helpful to me in finding the missing link in some of the stories. I also contacted Vanessa James, the co-author of Marina Chapman’s book, and also her daughter. Again she was of great help to clarify some of the details of her mother’s experiences in the forest with the capuchin monkeys.”
John Ssebunya (The Monkey Boy), Uganda, 1991: John ran away from home in 1988 when he was three years old after seeing his father murder his mother. He fled into the jungle where he lived with monkeys. He was captured in 1991, now about six years old, and placed in an orphanage. When he was cleaned up it was found that his entire body was covered in hair. His diet had consisted mainly of roots, nuts, sweet potatoes and cassava and he had developed a severe case of intestinal worms, found to be over half a meter long. He had calluses on his knees from walking like a monkey.
John has learned to speak and [learned] human ways. He was found to have a fine singing voice and is famous for singing and touring in the UK with the 20-strong Pearl of Africa children’s choir.
Was this project emotionally draining at all? If so, what motivated you to continue?
“The most trying time was researching the project and finding out how many cases there were. I often reflected that these were cases that were public knowledge; of course we don’t know how many other unknown cases there could have been. The cases that affected me most were those where children were still living close to the parents or family, but were being neglected or abused. Once I had decided on the project and my reason for shooting it, I was able to switch into my professional mode.”
Genie, USA, 1970: When she was a toddler Genie’s father decided she was “retarded” and restrained her in a child’s toilet seat in a small room of the house. She lived in solitary confinement for more 10 years. She even slept in the chair. She was 13 years old in 1970 when she and her mother turned up at child services and a social worker noticed her condition. She was still not toilet trained and moved with a strange sideways “bunny-walk.” She couldn’t speak or make any sound and constantly spat and clawed herself.
For years she became a research object. She gradually learned to speak a few words but couldn’t arrange them grammatically. She also began to read simple texts, and developed a limited form of social behavior. At one stage, she briefly lived again with her mother, but was then for several years passed through various foster homes experiencing abuse and harassment. She returned to a children’s hospital where it was found that she had regressed back to silence. Funding for Genie’s treatment and research was stopped in 1974 and it wasn’t known what happened to her, until a private investigator located her in a private facility for mentally underdeveloped adults.
How has this project altered the way you view animals and the animal kingdom, if it has at all?
“Some of the stories about wild animals giving care in one form or another to human children seem amazing to me. Of course we know that these are probably exceptional instances, which may make us suspicious of the validity of the story. However, the appearance and behavior of all of the children after capture confirmed the truth of their stories. But I would still not entrust my young boys to be looked after by wolves, monkeys and a leopard.”
Ivan Mishukov, Russia, 1998: Ivan was abused by his family and ran away when only 4 years old. He lived on the streets begging. He developed a relationship with a pack of wild dogs, and shared the food he begged with the dogs. The dogs grew to trust him and eventually he became something of a pack leader. He lived for two years in this way, but he was finally caught and placed in a children’s home. Ivan benefited from his existing language skills that he maintained through begging. This and the fact that he was feral for only a reasonably short time aided his recovery. He now lives a normal life.
Has it changed the way in which you think about human nature?
“It is hard to reconcile the neglectful and abusive behavior of some of the parents of those involved in the cases that I undertook to shoot with reality. Even if these days we get to know of similar cases almost daily through the media I was shocked and distressed to countenance that parents could be so inhuman to treat their children in the ways they did.”
Sujit Kumar (The Chicken Boy), Fiji, 1978: Sujit exhibited dysfunctional behavior as a child. His parents locked him in a chicken coop. His mother committed suicide and his father was murdered. His grandfather took responsibility for him but still kept him confined in the chicken coop. He was eight years old when he was found in the middle of a road, clucking and flapping. He pecked at his food, crouched on a chair as if roosting, and would make rapid clicking noises with his tongue. His fingers were turned inward. He was taken to an old people’s home by care workers, but there, because he was so aggressive, he was tied with bed sheets to his bed for over 20 years. Now he is over 30 years old and is cared for by Elizabeth Clayton, who rescued him from the home.
Could you tell me a bit about the logistics of making these images? How did you choose your models, and where did you shoot?
“The casting was incredibly important as I needed the children to have great acting abilities but also be the right age, body frame, skin and hair color, and facial characteristics. We sourced dozens of children and I met, interviewed and photographed many of them, then analysed and matched them with the original children before making a final selection. Another important exercise was to source and photograph a real live leopard and a troupe of monkeys. Sourcing the locations was done in a similar way and again was a very time-consuming part of the logistics.”
“As nude photographs would have been somewhat salacious, my stylist sourced old, discarded clothing that had to be again pre-treated to look authentic. Similar extreme efforts were required for their hair and make-up to simulate the child’s exposure to the wilderness. The hardest part was to keep to my cinematic style of photography and to achieve believable looking images/stories as far as poses and locations were concerned.”
Kamala and Amala, India, 1920: Kamala, 8 years old, and Amala, 1 and a half, were found in 1920 in a wolves’ den. It is one of the most famous cases of feral children. Pre-advised, they were found by a Reverend, Joseph Singh, who hid in a tree above the cave where they had been seen. When the wolves left the cave, he saw two figures look out of the cave. The girls were hideous looking, ran on all fours and didn’t look human. He soon captured the girls.
When first caught, the girls slept curled up together, growled, tore off their clothing, ate nothing but raw meat, and howled. Physically deformed, their tendons and the joints in their arms and legs were shortened. They had no interest in interacting with humans. But their hearing, sight and sense of smell was exceptional. Amala died the following year after their capture. Kamala eventually learned to walk upright and say a few words, but died in 1929 of kidney failure, 17 years old.
What speaks to you specifically about these children? Why was it important that you have a part in telling their stories?
“I think these fifteen cases as well as the others will surely affect people emotionally in a very intense way. I have frequently asked myself if such cases are still possible today, and I believe they are. Out of this realisation came my desire to make these instances better known to help raise public awareness that similar cases may be happening down the road or around the corner, somewhere in the world. Maybe we will be able save children from similar mind-blowingly unpleasant experiences when children should expect love, care and protection in their young lives.”
The Leopard Boy, India, 1912: The boy child was two years old when he was taken by a leopardess in 1912. Three years later a hunter killed the leopardess and found three cubs, one of which was the now five year old boy. He was returned to his family in the small village in India. When first caught he would only squat and ran on all fours as fast as an adult man could do upright. His knees were covered with hard callouses, his toes were bent upright almost at right angles to his instep, and his palms, toe- and thumb-pads were covered with a tough, horny skin. He bit and fought with everyone who approached him, and caught and ate the village fowl raw. He could not speak, uttering only grunts and growls.
Later he had learned to speak and walked more upright. Sadly he became gradually blind from cataracts. However, this was not caused by his experiences in the jungle, but was an illness common in the family.
Prava (The Bird Boy), Russia, 2008: Prava, a seven-year-old boy, was found in a tiny, two-bedroom apartment, living with his 31-year old mother, but he was confined in a room filled with bird cages, containing dozens of his mother’s pet birds, bird feed and droppings. She treated her son as another pet. He was never physically harmed; she neither beat him nor left him without food, but she never spoke to him. His only communication was with the birds. He could not speak, but chirped. When he wasn’t understood he would wave his arms and hands bird-like. Released into child care by his mother, Prava was moved to a centre for psychological care where doctors are trying to rehabilitate him.
Marie Angelique Memmie Le Blanc (The Wild Girl of Champagne), France, 1731: Apart from her childhood, Memmie’s story from the 18th century is surprisingly well-documented. For ten years, she walked thousands of miles alone through the forests of France. She ate birds, frogs and fish, leaves, branches and roots. Armed with a club, she fought off wild animals, especially wolves. She was captured, aged 19, black-skinned, hairy and with claws.When Memmie knelt down to drink water she made repeated sideways glances, the result of being in a state of constant alertness. She couldn’t speak and communicated only with shrieks and squeaks. She skinned rabbits and birds and ate them raw. For years she did not eat cooked food. Her thumbs were malformed as she used them to dig out roots and swing from tree to tree like a monkey. In 1737, the Queen of Poland, mother to the French queen, and on a journey to France, took Memmie hunting with her, where she still ran fast enough to catch and kill rabbits.
Memmie’s recovery from her decade-long experiences in the wild were remarkable. She had a series of rich patrons, learned to read, write and speak French fluently. In 1747 she became a nun for a while, but was hit by a falling window and her patron died soon thereafter. She became ill and destitute but again found a rich patron. In 1755 a Madam Hecquet published her biography. Memmie died financially well-off rich in Paris in 1775, aged 63.
This is a historical but surprisingly well-documented case of a feral child, as he was very much researched at the time to attempt to find the derivation of language. Victor was seen at the end of the 18th century in the woods of Saint Sernin sur Rance, in the south of France and captured but somehow escaped. In January 8, 1800 he was caught again. He was about 12 years old, his body covered in scars and unable to speak a word. Once the news of his capture spread, many came forward wanting to examine him.
Little is known about the background of his time as a feral child, but it is believed that he spent 7 years in the wild. A biology professor examined Victor’s resistance to cold by sending him naked outside in the snow. Victor showed no effect of the cold temperature on him whatsoever.
Others tried to teach him to speak and behave ‘normally’, but made no progress. He was probably able to talk and hear earlier in his life, but he was never able to do so after returning from the wild. Eventually he was taken to an institution in Paris and died at the age of 40.
Rochom P’ngien (Jungle Girl), Cambodia, 2007: Rochom was a grown woman when she was caught in January, 2007 after stealing food from a villager’s lunch box. A village policeman claimed that she was his 27 years old daughter – he recognized a prominent scar on her back – who, in 1988 at eight years of age, went missing with her 6-year old sister while herding water buffalo. It was assumed that they got lost in the jungle. The sister was never found.
When Rochom was captured she was naked, filthy and scarred. She could not talk. If she was thirsty or hungry, she would point at her mouth. She preferred to crawl on all fours rather than walk upright.
Rochom had difficulty in a adjusting to civilization. In February 2008, she disappeared for a few days but then returned. By July 2008, she could feed, bathe and dress herself but still could not speak. She was hospitalized in October 2009 as she refused to eat. By December that year she was eating again, was generally improving, and had started to understand and use some words of their native language.
On 25 May 2010, Rochom went to take a bath in the well behind their house but did not return. In early June, she was found in a 10 m deep latrine in the village. She took to living and sleeping in a small chicken coop near the family’s home, but would join the family for meals every three or four days. She still could not speak.
All images © Julia Fullerton-Batten