What can we learn from feral children?

The other day I happened upon a documentary series called ‘Feral Children’ on Animal Planet (as you do!). The programmes follow an anthropologist as she investigates the reported cases of children who have allegedly been raised with animals during the early, formative years of their lives due to some form of parental estrangement. Through such encounters, as the children have mimicked their creaturely companions, animalistic behavioural tendencies developed.

Feral children: Romulus and Remus

I have sadly watched three of these hour long episodes. One cannot help but be struck by several intriguing, if not surprising, commonalities between the cases. The cases were of
1. John from Africa, the so called ‘monkey-boy’;
2., Oxana from Ukraine, the so called ‘dog-child;
and 3., Sujit from Fiji, the so called ‘chicken-boy’.
Each one of these precious children come from deeply broken, tragic home lives. For one, their Mother died from a snake-bite leaving them with an abusive Father. Another had an alcoholic Mother, and was, therefore, placed into the care of Soviet orphanages; and yet another suffered from epilepsy which their parents deemed demonic. The latter was henceforth banished to live under the house, with very little love lost between them and, what should have been, loving parental arms. 
All of these little, helpless children were abandoned. They became fearful and developed a deep seated mistrust of other people.  
 The forbidden experiment
 Psychologists speak of this as the ‘forbidden experiment’: the experiment no estimable researcher will commit. These cases, then, are a natural marvel to such communities sparking a broad range of discussion centring upon the age old, pertinent question: who are we?
A theory or two
The anthropologist in this particular documentary does not answer this question. She does, however, cite several psychological theories to categorise what these children had experienced. Two of these were, Imprinting, where children ‘imprint’ the behaviour of their closest attachments, and, the Attachment Theory. This theory is based upon a study conducted in the 1960s. Baby monkeys were taken away from their mothers and placed in isolated, seperate cages with two cylinders; a metallic cylinder – with a teat that would feed them – and, a furry cyclinder – with no apparent function. They found that when agitated or nervous, the monkeys would retreat to the furry cylinder, prefering the solace and purported love of the furry cylinder over and above the functional, metallic feeding cylinder. This behaviour, the programme’s anthropologist says, when applied to children, shows that children will seek comfort not from the mere functionality of a cold hand that provides, but a warm hand which comforts. It’s the latter with which formidable attachments are made. 
The pertinent question
The question reeling in my mind from having watched these episodes is what makes someone human?
 Repeatedly throughout these episodes it was said, ‘something has happened to make these children sub-human’ – what, then, is the standard or quality of ‘human-ness’? What sets humans apart from animals? Even if humans exhibit similar behavioural traits to their respective animal companions (for these children all aspects of their behaviour was effected), is there anything that makes us essentially different?
Whilst the two psychological theories mentioned above are able to identify through observation how children may similarly form influential attachments, and in so doing, imprint the behaviour of these attachments, it doesn’t seem to answer the deeper, meta-physical question of why it is that it’s only when these children are loved, given time and patience through diligent care that they not only begin to trust the people around them, open up, develop/recover speech, but, also lose, to a large extent, their former behavioural patterns. Is there a reason for such preference and response to humans, rather than the animals who had previously cared for them? Especially, when to begin with, humans would have acted very differently to the dicates of their feral state. But, rather than breeding fear, when they were loved, different as they were, they desired to change. Why?
The animals
Where do the animals come into these tales of woe? Well, John, when he was around the tender of three, ran into the bush behind his house to flee his Father. These areas were filled with monkeys. Oxana had no one but dogs for company prior to her time in the orphanages. She could only seek solace from them, rather than the people around her. As for Sujit, whilst he lived under his parent’s house for months on end, so did the chickens. It almost sounds fariscal, doesn’t it?
Love wins
Elizabeth, an Australian psychologist in Fiji,  found Sujit tethered to his bed in an old people’s home. She said she saw a ‘spark’ in Sujit’s eyes as he lay on that bed, downcast and feral as he was, which told her that he ‘wasn’t completely gone’. She immediately removed him from the premises. She encouraged him, taught him to walk, helped him to start talking, surrounded him with other chidren and cared for him. At the end of the documentary Elizabeth conclusively says, ‘love wins’. 
All of these feral children not only came from tragic homes, but they were starved of love as a result. Instead, they began to adopt the patterns of the animals around them; perhaps the only creatures who accepted them. These children, however, formed a salient bond with their human friends once they were shown love consistently. 
What incredible, moving stories of love which, in turn, not only fuelled, but procured their rehabilitation to their truly human state. Whatever that is, I wonder if these formerly feral children provide us with a little sign of the dynamic, life-changing power of what it means to be loved.
What can we learn from feral children? Actually, I wonder if it is the very same thing we can glean from humanity and the world at large. 
We degenerate when we are deprived of love and community. We become ‘sub-human’.
 And that is the question: What does it mean to be human? Are we the product of our genetics, or our experiences? Or both? 
What do you think and why? :-)
The life of Pi, currently in cinemas, also addresses this very question. If you fancy getting some friends together, or would like to personally reflect upon the philosophical issues raised by the film, there is an excellent free resource available from Damaris, here.
You can see a short extract, from a different documentary, where Oxana demonstrates her former behaviour, here.




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2 Responses to What can we learn from feral children?

  1. Cat says:

    I have often wondered what it means to be truly human. In my Christian view, I find the moment that unravels our true humanity is in the Garden of Eden. When Adam and Eve walked with the Lord and had that perfect relationship with him I believe they were most human of all. But as soon as they sought to find their identity outside of Christ and their hearts desire turned from Christ through the Cherub called Satan who promised them something that would complete them and make them more wise or as wise as the trinitarian God – then at this point they became less human. It sounds crazy because we identify our “humanity” on biology and even relationships around us (like these feral children – sub human because they don’t follow society norms). If that is a basis of identity as being truly human then it will never be achieved – think of mutations, loss of limbs etc and think of feral children, outcasts etc… I think it must go above and beyound that – to be truly human is to have a relationship with our Father through Jesus Christ. Its him that gives us our identity because we are in his image – regardless of our body and social surroundings. We are all sub-human without Him.

  2. etrangere says:

    Agree with Cat. I was going to say – we are all less than human, since we rejected the God who is love and community in himself. We were made dependent (love and community require an Other) and strive to be independent – thinking we raise ourselves to be superhuman, we are subhuman. It’s there in Eden (and Paul’s commentary on it in Romans 1), and also in what you have described from the documentary – these poor children were to some degree independent of human company and loving authority. We were designed to be dependent revelation receivers (as Tripp would summarise it), and our Western education system values independence (all important tests are individual) and original thought (have a PhD).

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