Over decades and more, the idea of children being raised in the wild by a pack of wolves, or a compassionate bear and so on, have been romanticised by literature, movies and other media texts for the unconventional stories that it forms. From Rudyard Kipling’s 1894 The Jungle Book featuring young Mowgli, to the exciting story of Tarzan, children growing up in forests with beautiful tales of adventure have been a source of entertainment and important artistic creations for centuries. Even John McCrone’s book The Myth of Irrationality: The Science of the Mind from Plato to Star Trek touches upon various so-called feral children, discussing their stories briefly. Following this timeline even further back, we can trace such lore to Rome’s foundation myth with Romulus and Remus raised by wolves, as the legend has it. So, as history has, time and again, used feral children in the creation of art, the tradition of such literature and films continues as it rolls into the 21st century as well.
As recently as 2014, director Vuk Rsumovic’s debut film No One’s Child followed the allegedly fact-based story of a young boy who was found in 1988 by a group of hunters. This boy was discovered deep in the forests of Bosnia and Herzegovina living among wolves, and his amazing story recreated within this film won several film festival awards across the world, even earning the title of the ‘The Urban Jungle Book’. Keeping up this theme of storytelling, in Marina Chapman’s 2014 book The Girl With No Name, the author tells the personal story about how she was stolen from her home in a remote mountain village in South America when she was just four years old, only to be abandoned in the dense Colombian forest by her kidnappers. Here, her story reveals how she had to fend for herself and was eventually raised by monkeys in the wild. While a large amount of scepticism surrounds the authenticity of Marina’s feral claims, her book nonetheless represents yet another piece of literature joining The Jungle Book realm.
Inspired by this particular text, photographer Julia Fullerton-Batten decided to explore similar stories across the world, which led to her project ‘Feral Children’. In this, she brings to life various such tales through photographs that attempt to recreate these dark, wild circumstances in mesmerising artistic composition and excruciating detail.
Though the stories she recreates have claims in reality, researchers exploring their foundations have been skeptical. It’s interesting to note how these stories have in fact been widely researched by several groups attempting to find the truth behind the assertions, and have even been reported in Indian newspapers. Fullerton-Batten herself explored the topic extensively, as she says in an interview, “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.” Still, the validity of each story remains a question mark as several researchers attest to the lack of evidence supporting such claims. So, as we take each lore with a pinch of salt, we bring you three of Fullerton-Batten’s Feral Children that, as the legends go, came from the vast subcontinent of India.
I. The Leopard Boy, 1912
When this Dihungi-based boy child was only two years old, he was taken by a leopardess in 1912 while his mother worked in the fields, after local villagers killed the leopardess’ cubs. Three years later, when the boy was five years old, he was rescued after the mother leopard was killed by hunters, and returned to his parents in the village. The story relates that this boy, when rescued, could run on all fours with exceptional dexterity and speed. Additionally, he has developed n acute sense of smell, and even ripped apart and devoured any fowl he could find. E C Stuart Baker, a British ornithologist and police officer, visited the boy and wrote a report about him in a Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) journal as well. Still, there are many skeptics that question the authenticity of The Leopard Boy, but the story still makes for a beautiful photograph.
II. Kamala and Amala, 1920
Kamala, eight years old, and Amala, aged one and a half, were allegedly found in a wolf’s den in 1920 by a Reverend Joseph Amrito Lal Singh. The Reverend was said to have hidden in a tree near the cave where these girls had been spotted previously, and when the wolves left the cave, he saw the two figures emerge from within. The girls looked hideous, and far from human as they ran on all fours. Soon, he captured the girls and rescued them, but as he brought them to civilization to live in his orphange, they didn’t take to their new circumstances. They growled, tore off their clothing, and ate nothing but raw meat. The tendons and joints in their arms and legs were shortened, leaving them physically deformed, and they had calloused palms and knees with sharp edged teeth. While their sense of sight, hearing and smell were exceptional, they had no interest in human interactions, and as Singh tried to help them engage with other children, their animalistic behaviour prevented any such success.
As the legend goes, Amala died the year following their capture, while Kamala learned to walk upright and even speak a little, only to die of kidney failure in 1929 when she was 17 years old.
Kamala and Amala’s story finds a mention in Bhanu Kapil’s book Humanimal, A Project for Future Children, based on Reverend Singh’s mediation of the tale. As French surgeon Serge Arole researched the case of Kamala and Amala, he found the entire story to be scandalously false, and his book L’Enigme des enfants-loup (Enigma of the Wolf-Children), 2007 described how, after scrutinising each detail, he concluded that most of Singh’s claims were a lie. According to the orphanage’s medical doctors, the girls had none of the anomalies that Singh invented, but seemed to have neuro-developmental disorders.
Professor Robert M Zingg of the University of Denver, after a series of letter exchanges with Singh, co-authored a book with the Reverend called Wolf-Children and Feral Man, which received such great criticism from anthropologists that Dr. Zingg was dismissed from his academic post and never taught again. Despite the controversy surrounding Kamala and Amala, this photographic recreation of the tale is particularly striking.
III. Shamdeo, The Wolf Boy, 1972
A strange sequence of events envelopes the story of the feral boy Shamdeo, who in various accounts and re-tellings of the tale, was also referred to as Ramu, and even Bhaloo. An L.A. Times article by Elisabeth Bumiller dating back to May 19, 1985 searches the authenticity behind Ramu or Shamdeo, and takes us through the unusual happenings. According to a Times of India report at that time, a young boy named Ramu had been found living in a forest in the north of India living among wolf cubs in 1976 when he was four years old. He was said to have been found with matter hair and claw-like nails, evidently raised in the wild by the wolves. When he was rescued, he learned to dress and bathe, but not to speak. As the story goes, would even sneak out and raid chicken coops in the night. While several scholars were skeptical about the Tarzan-like myth surrounding this boy, and even claimed that he was simply retarded, the Times of India printed a front page obituary of him when he died in at Prem Nivas, a home for the destitute run by Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity.
While that was the tale of Ramu, Bhaloo has another story altogether, making this lore more curious than ever. A farmer named Narsingh Bahadur Singh who lived in Sultanpur district’s Narayanpur village, was coming home through the woods on his bike one day when he stopped to stare at a human child, about four or five years old, running on all fours among some wolf cubs. As Singh captured the boy and brought him home, the young feral child put up a tough fight, scratching, howling and biting to be released. Singh allegedly spent a long time weaning him off raw meat, and eventually gave up, sending him to Prem Nivas to be cared for there. While Bhaloo was apparently the name he received at this charity home, Singh had christened him Shamdeo.
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