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Whilst I was travelling in 2018, I met many interesting people but one in particular stood out to me: a boy named Baloo (name changed to maintain privacy). I met Baloo while visiting a centre for children with disabilities in Arusha, Tanzania, that my friend was working at. At first glance, he appeared to be an average child, maybe 7-8 years old and relatively shy; nothing seemed to be out of the ordinary.
I was shocked to learn that he had spent almost five years living with baboons after becoming separated from his family and becoming lost in the bush. It wasn’t until he was discovered running with a troop of baboons by tourists that he was ‘captured’ to re-join human society. As I spent time with Baloo, I noticed his leathery hands and feet, his baboon-esque movement style, his desire to be held a certain way and although he was mostly non-verbal, the noises he did make were certainly reminiscent of the monkey family. Although he was very small, it turns out Baloo was estimated to be about 13 years old.
When I met Baloo, he had been staying at the centre for children with disabilities for several months and had made positive progress. He had taken a while to warm to the concept of clothes but was wearing them relatively happily when I met him. He also seemed very comfortable around the other children as well as the adult workers at the centre, demonstrating good progress at integrating back into the human world.
I’d heard stories of children being raised by animals, but I never expected to actually meet someone who had experienced this in real life. It got me thinking and I decided to do some research into other occurrences. Dubbed ‘feral children’, the stories of children living with animals are usually a result of neglect or tragedy and certainly aren’t the romanticised picture of living off the land and running with animals that old wives’ tales make them out to be. Isolated from human civilisation for sometimes many years, most of these children miss out on formative years of developing into a ‘normal’ human being. And instead, they grow up without human languages and have limited knowledge of human society. For many, re-joining civilisation can be difficult and even traumatic.
Although it can be hard to validate these stories as they are largely based on personal testimonies, I have chosen to write about stories that I personally believe to be true, based on the evidence I have found or as in the case of Baloo, that I have witnessed personally.
Marcos Rodríguez Pantoja spent twelve years isolated from human civilisation in the Sierra Morena, a rugged mountain range in the southern Spain. As a seven-year-old, he was abandoned to fend for himself, finding himself in the company of wolves, who somewhat adopted and protected him. Although he lost his ability to communicate through human language, Rodríguez adapted to his new environment, picking up new communication methods including howling, barking, chirping and screeching. Guided by the animals he encountered, largely wolves but also including pigs, he learned what foods to eat and how to stay safe.
Rodríguez was discovered hiding in the mountains by police at the age of nineteen and was captured to be reintroduced to human society. Since then, he has struggled to reintegrate. Other people, when interacting with him, would often become frustrated with his lack of communication skills and his general naivety towards the world. He was often exploited and taken advantage of due to his lack of experience living amongst other humans and was largely shunned by civilisation. Bosses would underpay him because he didn’t properly understand money and despite an initial disdain towards Rodríguez and his story, once it was released to the media, people would become fascinated in him and not leave him alone. It was difficult for him to understand what people expected from him. Now 73 years old, although Rodríguez has improved his ability to relate to other humans, he said, “For most of my life, I had a very bad time among humans.”
After his capture, and during attempts to reintroduce him to society, Rodríguez would “run back to the mountains whenever [he] could. [He] didn’t feel comfortable among humans.” It seems that he had lead a happier life in his isolation from humans, it was much simpler just living amongst animals and away from the confusion of human society. In trying to understand he said, “When a person talks, they might say one thing but mean another. Animals don’t do that.”
Another example is that of Oxana Malaya, a tragic story of neglect, who lived with dogs in the kennel behind her house in the Ukraine from the ages of three to eight years old. Julia Fullerton-Batten, a photographer who has recreated images of several feral children in their environments, explained, “there are two different scenarios – one where the child ended up in the forest, and another where the child was actually at home, so neglected and abused that they found more comfort from animals than humans.”
In Malaya’s case it is suspected that due to neglect and abandonment from her alcoholic parents, she sought warmth from the dogs in the kennel after being left outside and ended up living with them for the next six years. She was found living in that kennel in 1991, running on all fours, teeth bared, barking and with a human communication limited to ‘yes’ and ‘no’. Malaya had picked up many mannerisms from living with dogs for so many years and found it difficult adapting back into life in human society. The extended period of time she spent isolated from intellectual and social human stimulation made it challenging to develop human social and emotional intelligence when transitioning back into civilisation. Malaya, despite only have the maturity and intelligence of a child, now works with animals, in the company of those she will perhaps always be most comfortable with.
However, the idea that humans can be so easily accepted and integrated by animals has been the subject of debate amongst scientists. Douglas Capland, a primatologist and psychologist, studied the case of another feral child, John Ssebunya who lived with monkeys in Uganda for three years.[1,3] He believed that Ssebunya had more likely lived alongside the monkeys, rather than among them. For example, he picked up the food left behind from the monkeys’ foraging and learned to imitate their mannerisms through observations from afar.
Rodríguez’s case was studied by José España, a biologist and wolf behaviour specialist. He believes that Rodríguez’s experience was similar to that of Ssebunya, in that he co-existed with the wolves rather than fulling integrating into their pack. España described Rodríguez as a “periphery wolf – tolerated by the alpha, and by the rest of the pack because he posed no threat.” This explanation of animals respecting but not accepting the humans makes sense, however humans tend to love the absurd, resulting in the many romanticised tales of children being raised by animals.
My hope for Baloo as he continues to learn and integrate back into human society is that people are more accepting and patient with him than they were with Rodríguez and Malaya. Humans can be very hostile towards those who are different and deviate from the norm. Even if Rodríguez and Malaya, and perhaps Baloo too may, due to their experiences, prefer the company of animals, when it comes down to it we are all still human.