Child, Canine, Citizen
Oxana Malaya was found as an eight-year old, five years after her disappearance from the Ukrainian village of Novaya Blagoveschenka(1). The year was 1991, Ukraine still under Soviet control, and a neighbor had noticed a child running around with a pack of wild dogs. At three years old Malaya had wandered away from alcoholic parents, and it seemed, had lived with the dogs since. Dubbed the “dog girl” (devochka-sobaka) by both the Russian media and the doctors who would periodically give their opinions on the matter, Malaya has been the subject of a Discovery Channel special, and a single Youtube clip of her has garnered over a million views—hardly a massive number by today’s standards of the viral, but for a human (animal?) interest story from over 25 years ago, remarkable. In the video, she yelps and barks, sounding indistinguishable from a wild animal, and she moves in an outdoor pen on her hands and knees with remarkable speed. Since her discovery, Malaya has been trying to grasp human speech to mixed success. At 23 tests revealed that she had the mental capacity of a six-year old. She cannot read or write, and still suffers from a severe intellectual disability that is common among feral children.
Since the mid-20th century, this disability has led psychologists to dismiss many claims of feral children as simply a severe infantile autism covered up with a fantastical story of animal foster parents (2). This explanation has persisted into the 21st century: French surgeon Serge Aroles argues in his 2007 book L’Enigme des enfants-loup that almost all of these cases are fabrications used to embellish what in reality is frequently autism or another form of related intellectual disability (3). Because feral children tend to be found near isolated villages, it can be difficult to verify which of these children are raised by animals and which are falsely attributed to such narratives. Though Aroles may disagree, the validity of some still seem to be corroborated by a number of sources. In 1998, seven years after Malaya’s discovery, the Moscow police were finally able to capture Ivan Mishukov, a six-year-old boy who had escaped his mother’s alcoholic boyfriend to become a pack leader of several dogs who depended on him to supply them with food. Mishukov, who had only left civilization for two years, was able to redevelop his speaking skills quickly, and has since made several appearances in the Russian media (4).
Myth or not, it is unsurprising that these children ended up in the media’s gaze, at which point their bodies, mannerisms and psychologies were subjected to the assessment of a public that carefully marked the ways they deviated from the images of the ideal Soviet subject. We might consider that in the Soviet context, the feral child functioned as a sign of the eschatological: the early 20th century post-revolutionary spill of artists predicted and dreamed of a Soviet future that could only be defined as existing within a hygiene of lifestyle. Take the work of the filmmaker Aleksandr Medvedkin, who depicted a vision for a mapped city, open skies and a gleaming white infrastructure housing only the bodies of handsome men and women in his 1928 film New Moscow (Novaya Moskva). A profound irony that little over 50 years later, nearing the end of the Soviet project, Oxana Malaya emerged—some unknown wild, awkward, dirty far cry from the promises that the future once seemed to hold.
In The Animal That Therefore I Am (More to Follow), Jacques Derrida observes the unstable boundary between man and animal. Man is both defined as animal and as not animal, and without this latter definition we would be lost as to what man is in the first place (5). We might consider that all firm distinctions between man and animal will always be unsteady, even arbitrary. Derrida points to nakedness as such a distinction, a property solely of man. Since Genesis, man has been ashamed of his nakedness, while an animal, lacking shame, is never naked. He critiques the untenable, rather ludicrous distinctions that the Western philosophical tradition has drawn between “human” and the huge swath of beings that comprise “animal,” a project that sweeps many special humans out of the category of the “human” and into that of the “animal.”
It’s difficult to refrain from slipping into overstatement when talking about feral children. The feral child displaces and spoils established and idealized categorizations of humanness. These are properties which are both ontological (this is human, that is animal), as well as ideological (this is what a human ought to be). The ontological categorization of the human rapidly falls apart when confronted with the feral child, a body that is biologically declared as human, but with little attention to how. Few would likely argue that Malaya is not a human, but one struggles to find what divides human from animal and establishes Malaya firmly as the former, excluding her from the latter. Perhaps it is reason and language—or, per Derrida, shame—that elevate humans from being animal. Does Malaya possess any of these?
An attention to the ontological implications on human/animal identity is the curious centerpiece of Michael Newton’s 2000 book, Savage Girls and Wild Boys. Newton traces out several cases of feral children’s appearances throughout history. For Newton, the feral child contains the excitement of a personal, existential probing into human identity. Newton’s book consolidates a large number of previously disparate stories, analyses, and myths of feral children. Despite the many merits of his work, Newton is less interested in what we might call the ideological and political dimensions of feral children, as opposed to their ontological properties. The public spectacle of Oxana Malaya’s story did not occur solely because she disrupted the human/animal divide ontologically, but also because she disrupted a Soviet ideology that dictated the ways that human bodies were supposed to look and act; the feral child is inherently political, playing with the designations not just of what humans are, but what humans are supposed to be.
It is clear from Newton’s work that, more frequently than not, stories and myths of feral children are found in the context of empire—famously in Ancient Rome and most commonly in South Asia. Perhaps what the feral child exposes is a geographical anxiety at the root of empire: the inability of the imperialist to have full control over his land. It is no coincidence that just as Ukraine was slipping away, Malaya appeared from the woods. Whether or not the feral child exists within the context of empire and colonization, the number of stories—fiction or otherwise—which have emerged linking feral children to these sites of imperialism is worthy of further examination.
Wolves & Whores
“This man, Taratius, carried them down to the bank of the river and laid them down there. Then, a she-wolf came to the infants and let them suck at her breast, and birds flew to them and brought small morsels of food, placing them in their mouths, until a swineherd, having caught sight of them and marvelled at such a sight, boldly went to the children and took them away.” (Plutarch, Lives, Book I) (6)
The archetypal empire was founded by the feral child. A great deal of art has been devoted to Romulus and Remus, cherubic infants and the first of the Romans, suckling at their she-wolf surrogate. What Plutarch, writing in Greek, omits from his depiction of the events is what Livy, writing in Latin, does not avoid. After reporting the same course of events as Plutarch, Livy doubles back. It’s a question of translation. Consider his shorter reflection on the same events:
“There are those who believe that Larentia was called “lupa” among the shepherds because she was a common prostitute, and from here was the opening for this marvelous story.” (Livy, Ab Urbe Condita, I.4)
Livy speaks about the double entendre in the Latin lupa, best translated as both she-wolf and whore (7). Prostitutes in ancient Rome could be divided into levels of hierarchy: a lupa is not the same as a meretrix, the prostitutes who held an officially recognized place in Roman society and even garnered some measure of respectability. In contrast to the meretrix, the lupa is lawless, loose in sexuality and morals (8). In contrast, wolves have strict sexual mores and regulations—the association between the animal and human counterpart may have more to do with a common, implicit threat of female sexual power and agency. The lupa, in both the human and animal meaning, is excluded from humanness, and serves as a reminder that humans other than feral children are robbed of their humanness, reduced to a bestiality. Moreover, A.W.J. Holleman suggests that the connection between lupa and lawless prostitute has much to do with the etymology of lupa from an Etruscan origin, and that the Etruscans, the Italian civilization which preceded the Romans, had long been associated in the Roman imagination with a kind of sexual depravity and rapacity (9).
The provocative connections between this word and the axes of power and identity formation on which it relies furnish a number of conclusions. Lupa, and its ethnic, sexual, animal multiplicities, contains an instability of meaning that forms the root of an original anxiety at the foundation of the empire. This anxiety is deeply embedded in the feral child as an embodied lack—a lack of humanness, a lack of animalness, and most important here, a lack of confirmation. Confirmation refers to the project of trying to validate whether feral children are real or not, and thus, whether the stories we take as the foundations of our culture are true.
Mythohistory reflects the nation-building narrative that Livy purports to tell. It troubles the distinction between present, in the flesh feral children and imagined or constructed ones. The incongruity between these two kinds of feral children—the awkward, dirty Malaya and the heroic Romulus and Remus—makes it clear that stories of feral children do not necessarily reflect feral children in the flesh. But the tension between the glorious, clean myth of a she-wolf surrogate and the quotidian myth of the prostitute suggests that, even in its own time, the fantastic feral child story started to crumble under its own weighty miraculousness. Such instability is especially apparent in Livy, whose style constructs a history that relies on multiple disagreeing voices. Unlike some of his fellow ancient historians, Livy includes varying interpretations on the events in his mythohistory of Rome—he fuses fact, rumor, and speculation. Rooted in and acknowledging ambiguity, Livy’s history points to an “opening” (locus fibulae) where meanings and histories are constructed.
Sigmund Freud’s work on the “Wolf Man”, the Russian aristocrat Sergei Pankejeff, likewise relies on the relationship between ambiguity and meaning (10). In Freud’s story, Pankejeff, as a young boy, had dreamed of white wolves sitting in a walnut tree. After he approached Freud as an adult for a number of “nervous problems”, Freud connected these problems to Pankejeff’s trauma to of having witnessed his father having sex with his mother from behind—an archetypal event he dubs the “primal scene”. Or, Freud allows, Pankejeff may have witnessed two animals having sex, and subconsciously connected this occurrence to an imagined primal scene with his own parents. Regardless of what actually occurred, whether Pankejeff had seen his parents having sex or, more innocently, animals in the same act, the possibility of both implies that the primal scene is inescapable, as an imagined trauma has the same effect as a real one.
To imagine the founders of Rome as the surrogate children of a sex worker implies the presence of such a primal scene in the imagination of the Roman people. For the Romans, who considered their national heritage intensely familial—the esteemed patres belonging to a direct lineage that connects each Roman to a shared kinship and past—the question of whether the Romans are the descendants of a wolf or a whore is connected to a deep-seated anxiety over the legitimacy of their history. R.J. Schork points out the connection between the Romulus and Remus story as Livy describes it and the Roman festival of Lupercalia, where naked young men, Luperci, after performing rites at the Lupercal cave where the she-wolf was said to have suckled the twins, proceeded to run around the city, whipping women with goatskin thongs in order to promote fertility (11). It’s a festival centered upon both sex and wolves, not exclusively one or the other. The feral child exists, from its beginning, as a site of ambiguity.
In the festival of the Lupercalia both meanings of lupa are very much alive, but as Bakhtin observed about the carnival, some festivals are departures from established narratives of life, and are not the narratives themselves. This is the case here: Livy is the exception—the ambiguity has been crushed in the other ancient sources, and in subsequent depictions of the story. For the Romans, speaking casual Latin, the connection between wolf and prostitute was inescapable; once we leave Latin and the festival, that connection disappears. The recorders of history have selected to preserve one story at the expense of another. We can take comfort in the “marvelous story”, the beautiful one with the children and the flying birds and the regal she-wolf, and ignore the ugly, human one: a prostitute and two babies, a scene like any other.
“I think I could turn and live with animals, they are so placid and self-contained
I stand and look at them long and long.
They do not sweat and whine about their condition,
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins,
They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God,
Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the mania of owning things.”
– Walt Whitman (12)
If Romulus and Remus are some of the earliest stories of feral children, the most commercial is Rudyard Kipling’s Mowgli. John Lockwood Kipling, perhaps best known as his father, uses the Whitman poem as the epigram to his own study Beast and Man in India: A Popular Sketch of Indian Animals in Their Relations with the People. Lockwood Kipling sets out to replace a myth of Oriental spiritual superiority with one of spiritual impoverishment (13); the irony in the unrepentant British imperialist invoking an injunction against “the mania of owning things” is uncomfortably evident.
The Whitman poem brings to mind a fixation with the animal or primitive as exemplars of virtue. It is a poem fascinated with lack—animals are not good because of what they do but because of what they do not do. Though without the emphasis on virtue, such an interpretation of the wild as a lack of the human is the reason for the fascination with most real-life feral children. See how Oxana can’t speak like us, see how she doesn’t act like us, see how she has all her humanity stripped away from her. The lack of confirmation of a feral child’s validity can be an intrinsic part of their importance in narratives of empire, but the Kiplings’ depiction of the feral child is quite different. Here, a lack of humanness is not met by idle fascination—it is a gap that is filled.
What is striking about the world that Rudyard Kipling creates in his Jungle Books is how the wild is made so unwild. In his novels, he foregrounds laws and codes of honor, the “Law of the Jungle—as old and true as the sky.” (14) It is as though the jungle contains more of the rituals and structures of civilization than civilization itself. Per Kipling’s style, the animals speak in a formal register of British English. While their speech is not unusual for stories about anthropomorphized animals, it certainly circumvents the feral child’s lack of formal language. We see that the jungle of Kipling’s imagination reflects a replacement of wildness with civilization, that in the place of lack there is instead supplied the political and imagined visions of the colonizer. This implementation is not limited to the political and sociological institutions of the jungle. In the iconography surrounding the Jungle Books, Mowgli’s body has likewise become the subject of the colonial imagination.
John Lockwood Kipling was the first illustrator of the Jungle Books. His illustrations of Mowgli and the animals of his world are beautifully detailed, and composed with an eye for the fantastic, parabolic qualities of the text. They are also clearly homoerotic. In one, Mowgli, as a young man, sleeps naked on a tree, his long hair feminine and body toned. In another picture, again naked, he carries the skin of the tiger Shere Khan and moves away from the other animals of the jungle in a starlit night scene, their eyes following his triumphant, somewhat tragic, walk. Lockwood Kipling’s illustrations depict a body that is both vulnerable and beautiful—completely different from the awkward, feral body of Oxana Malaya. Her body is unable to match up to the imagined feral child; Mowgli’s handsomeness reflects a fantasy that dominates his iconography.
From 1967 to 1971, the Soviet animation studio Soyuzmultfilm (Union Animation) released a highly popular series of cartoon shorts as an adaptation of the novels (15). Mowgli’s depiction follows in John Lockwood Kipling’s paradigm—he is tall, bronze-skinned, muscular, and speaks perfect Russian in a baritone. He wears a loincloth and has long dark hair. Bagheera, his originally male teacher and protector, is a purring woman in the Soviet adaptation. Consistently, Kipling’s novels have produced a legacy of a sexualized iconography of the feral child. Even the most recent adaptation, 2016’s Disney version, uses the voice of Scarlett Johansson for Kaa, the snake who seduces Mowgli into danger and an Edenic sexuality, making the already sexual subtext of the snake’s earlier appearance in the 1967 Disney animation even more evident. Incongruously and frequently, Mowgli’s body is made the object of sexual attention and desire.
If, as Whitman’s poem points to, the wild is defined by lack, an absence of civilization, then any construction of the feral child’s body as the target of sexual desire must contend with the fact that these qualities are ascribed to the feral child archetype, not inherently or objectively possessed by the feral child. Kipling answers the chaotic jungle and its lack of human civilization by placing on it laws, mores, and customs, all illuminating Kipling’s own position and politics. In the same sense, the qualities that are inscribed onto the imagined body of Mowgli suggest the desires of his illustrators. The feral child does not exist as its own subject but instead as a canvas upon which the narratives and desires of the public are painted. Mowgli does not exist—as a character in a novel, he illustrates the archetype of the desired feral child, one to whom actual feral children, like Malaya, do not match up.
- Eating Children
Bhanu Kapil’s cross-genre document, Humanimal, concerns the missionary Joseph Singh who, near Midnapure in 1921, claimed to have killed the wolves acting as the parents of “the Bengali Wolf girls,” Amala and Kamala. Kapil blends her own experience traveling to Midnapure with Singh’s journals, fusing fact and fiction, the past and the present. She reconstructs the moment human food is introduced to the girls:
“Both children, the wolf girls, were given a fine yellow powder to clean their kidneys but their bodies, having adapted to animal ways of excreting meat, could not cope with this technology. Red worms came out of their bodies and the younger girl died. Kamala mourned the death of her sister with what Joseph describes as “an affection” (16).
The “technology” of turmeric separates the children from their humanity. Food here becomes the marker of the girls’ difference, and the language Kapil uses to describe the encounter likewise is alien, defamiliarizing the experience of human food, illness and mourning. Is poetic, defamiliarized language used here as a matter of style, or to reflect the perspective of the characters who do not understand the world they encounter? Made vulnerable, the inability of the girls to consume human food and the resulting, avoidable death of Amala suggests a violence at the root of taking the feral child back into human civilization. Perhaps, Kapil wryly notes, Singh’s fixation with the girls verges on the perverse, the dangerous.
Why does the feral child need to be saved at all? To ask this question brings up a larger issue of child welfare and safety. In humanist rights discourse, welfare connotes a moral responsibility to those deemed human, a label which feral children cannot separate themselves from even as they complicate it. Many of these stories, fictional and not, arise from an originary case of childhood abandonment by their parents. But a difference exists between ensuring the safety of these children and forcibly reincorporating them into human society.
The need to restore civilization to the feral child is an extension of Kipling’s literary project of imposing civilization onto an embodied wildness that eventually demands subjugation and custom. This logic is carried out in the narratives of these feral children stories: a shepherd saves Romulus and Remus, who then found the paradigmatic city; Mowgli, in the second Jungle Book’s final story, “The Spring Runneth,” reconciles with his “true” identity as a human by being taken in by his adopted mother and joining her village. Malaya, though by most accounts seems to be doing well, was also taken in and immediately subjected to a slew of tests and rehabilitations, put in front of cameras and introduced to a massive public in a forceful introduction to the world through violent taming.
In another scene, Kapil makes this violence clear: “Accused by an orphan of biting, Kamala is called into Joseph’s study where he bites her back. Beats her with a bamboo wand, then pricks her in the palm with its tip.” He bites Kamala “back”, though, tellingly, Singh was not the orphan whom she had originally bitten. Singh acts as the retributive force for a larger human society against the feral child. Kapil points to Singh’s rescue of the girls as ultimately sadistic. It is also crucial to consider Singh’s role as a missionary in addition to the complex legacy that such a role implies in enacting power over colonized people. He means to discipline, to subdue the feral child, even at the cost of the child’s own welfare
Kapil never verifies Singh’s claims and journal entries, and whether or not Singh’s descriptions actually occurred remains a matter of debate. Serge Aroles, the French surgeon, says Singh’s widely disseminated journals are lies, that the missionary took advantage of a sensational chance for a story, and, instead, both girls had severe cases of autism. While perhaps overzealous, Aroles does point to the way in which stories of feral children are instrumentalized to cover up the unpalatable. For Aroles, this amounts to a dramatization of feral children as cover stories for mental disability. It’s a conclusion we might find reductive, but there is a suspicious salaciousness at the heart of so many of these stories devoured by the public. From the whore/wolf opposition at the origins of Roman history to the sexualization of Mowgli, narratives of feral children cover up secret histories or express secret desires, turning them into majestic, marvelous stories for consumption.
The figure of the feral child unsettles the fantasy of stability and reveals the precarious instability around the category of the human. Widely disseminated and consumed depictions of feral children are used to both assert and muddle national boundaries, colonial narratives, and differences between these depictions’ own myths and realities. A relationship with feral children that is centered around ourselves and our own humanity may inevitably lead to violence: Singh’s carelessness, his violation of two children by dictating the way they ought to be human, ended in their deaths. Rather than exclusively viewing the deep-seated integration of these narratives into an organized social order as a taming or disciplining of feral children and their narratives, we may also view these stories and figures as rendering wild, perhaps more chaotic, than a social world that rests upon an artifice of order. The sensationalized treatment of the feral child mythologizes the banality of the news cycle, reawakening the folkloric underpinnings and unspeakable fantasies that lurk beneath everyday narratives.
NIHAL SHETTY is a junior at Columbia University studying Comparative Literature and classics.
- Grice, Elizabeth. “Cry Of An Enfant Sauvage”. The Telegraph 2016. Web. 19 Sept. 2016.
- Bettelheim, Bruno. “Feral Children and Autistic Children.” American Journal of Sociology 64.5 (1959): 455-67. Web.
- Aroles, Serge. L’enigme Des Enfants-Loups. Paris: Publibook, 2007. Print.
- Newton, Michael. Savage Girls And Wild Boys. New York: Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press, 2003. Print.
- Derrida, Jacques. “The Animal That Therefore I Am (More to Follow).” Critical Inquiry, Vol. 28, No. 2. (Winter, 2002), pp. 369-418.
- All translations are my own, unless otherwise noted
- The terms “whore” and “prostitute” as both offensive and antiquated. I use them to most accurately translate these texts with respect to the historical context, specifically that of Ancient Rome. In her book “Playing the Whore: The Work of Sex Work” Melissa Gira Grant discusses the complex histories of these terms entrance into the English language, saying: “The word [prostitute] is young, and at first it didn’t confer identity. When prostitute entered into English in the sixteenth century it was as a verb—to prostitute, to set something up for sale…The word whore is older, old English or old German, possibly derived from a root that’s no longer known, and dates back as early as the twelfth century BCE. There were countless people whose lives prior to the word’s invention were later reduced by historians to the word whore, though their activities certainly varied.” Like Melissa Gira Grant, I will use ‘prostitute’ “to refer to its historical use..in a period before the phrase ‘sex work’ was invented’ (Grant). It was in 1978 that Carol Leigh wrote the work “Inventing Sex Work,” which both crucially coined the term and class of labor called sex work, and provided a shift in the nomenclature.
- Holleman, A.W.J. “Lupus, Lupercalia, Lupa”. Latomus 44.3 (1985): 609-614. Print.
- Freud, Sigmund. “From the History of an Infantile Neurosis” (1918), reprinted in Peter Gay, The Freud Reader (London: Vintage, 1995).
- Schork, R. J. “Moral Metamorphosis in Livy.” Latomus 47.1 (1988): 98-104. Web.
- Whitman’s poem is from his “Song of Myself”
- Kipling, John Lockwood. Beast And Man In India. London: Macmillan and Co., 1891. Print.
- Kipling, Rudyard. The Jungle Books. 1st ed. Penguin. Print.
- Adventures Of Mowgli. Soviet Union: Roman Davydov, 1973. film.
- Kapil, Bhanu. Humanimal. Berkeley, CA: Kelsey Street Press, 2009. Print.