Real-Life Jungle Books How Feral Children Raised By Animals Continue To Fire The Imagination

I lately became a first-time mother. In addition to my daughter, Myrtle, I share my home with a motley collect of rescued animals including puppies, cats, horses, chickens and swine. This multi-species, multi-generational co-habitation along with the release of a new adaptation of Rudyard Kiplings The Jungle Book left me thinking about the phenomena of feral children, a topic I had considered in my volume about human-animal interactions more generally. Certainly in some exceptional circumstances I can now appreciate how it might be possible for a human infant to be cared for by a non-human surrogate.

The Jungle Book. 2015 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Right Reserved .

In Kiplings original The Jungle Book, published in 1894, the man-cub Mowgli is taken in by a wolf pack after he is separated from his human parents by Shere Kahn, the tiger. The choice of wolves as parental stand-ins for the lost human toddler is arguably more plausible than him being taken in by the Indian stone python Kaa, who, contrary to portrayal on screen as a rogue, is one of Mowglis friends and mentors in the book although there are some documented cases of children being befriended by benevolent pythons.

The canidae family, which include wolves, dogs, and foxes, are the classic surrogate carers for feral human infants, featuring regularly in mythological as well as historical and ethnographic accounts. The alleged ability of these animals to raise human children has ancient antecedents in the legends surrounding the foundation of Rome when twins Romulus and Remus were suckled by a she-wolf.

Wolf beginnings: Romulus and Remus, founders of Rome. Shutterstock

Throughout history, accounts of so-called feral infants have captivated the attention of public and academic audiences alike. The wolf children of Midnapore is a particularly well-known historical instance, where two young girl were found living with a she-wolf and her cubs. The girls did not speak( but wailed ), moved on all fours, and when they were taken to a local orphanage, preferred the company of the resident puppies to the other children. The perseverance of isolated but documented instances of humans raised by or alongside animals continues to fuel our interest.

Take John Ssebunya who, as a three-year-old infant in Uganda in 1988, ran away from home after witnessing his father slaying his mother. Ssebunya was adopted by a troop of vervet monkeys and taught by them how to forage. What induces his narrative different from many of the other accounts is the fact that he had some human socialisation prior to his incorporation into a non-human social group, and was able to communicate his experiences on his reincorporation into humanity.

Social Creatures

Like primates, wolves and puppies are highly social and all members of the pack will participate in the care of puppies or cubs. Wolves can also enter into friendships with animals who would, in other contexts, represent appropriate prey. An instance dating back to 2007 but which did the rounds on social media recently told the story of an unlikely friendship which developed between a captive wolf and the decrepit donkey who was introduced into the enclosure as live prey. According to some of the people involved in rescuing the pair from their incarceration, the wolf was frightened and the donkey had taken on the role of protector.

In The Jungle Book narratives, Mowgli is taught about how to survive in the wild by Baloo, the bear, and Bagheera, the leopard. While such a trio might seem unlikely friends, again there are examples of similar cross-species friendships. For example, the case of a lioness at the Lewa wildlife reserve in Kenya who has repeatedly adopted Oryx calves over a period of several years.

Another apprehending example, documented by wildlife filmmakers Dereck and Beverly Joubert( above ), was the leopardess whom they named Legadema, and her cub. After Legademas first baboon kill a small baby baboon was left attached to the dead body of its mother. Rather than killing it or ignoring it to feed her dinner, Legadema picked up the baby when it reached out to her and carried it up a tree where she groomed it, carrying it higher each time it exclaimed. The pair eventually curled up together and slept, but the newborn died in the night and it was only then that Legadema returned to the mother baboons body to eat.

Such instances might be dismissed as the exceptions that prove the rule and we dont know what would have happened in the long term. However, there is a clear and well documented lawsuit of inter-species adoption, by primatologists, in which a newborn marmoset was taken in and cared for into adulthood by a group of wild( but provisioned) capuchins.

Capuchins have been known to adopt. Sang Trinh/ Flickr, CC BY

The ability( or even tendency) to( attempt to) raise the young of another species indicates the possibility of inter-species communication and empathy. Legadema might just have been responding to an innate maternal instinct. But the fact that she engaged with the baboon as a newborn as opposed to a potential food source was the result of some kind of mutual understanding between them; the baby reached out to her, and she responded to its request for comfort.

A final occurrence which brings us back to human “childrens and” canines was documented in 2015. A malnourished and neglected two-year-old infant was found by authorities in Chile being breastfed by a neighbours dog.

Stories of feral infants are widely disputed by academics and are also seen as sensationalist by popular audiences. This is because the ability of other animals to raise human infants calls many long-standing premises about human uniqueness and superiority into question. However, our knowledge of the capabilities of other animals is increasing rapidly. As a result we are forced to recognise that they too are capable of many behaviours and actions previously thought to be exclusively human. Also increasing are documented cases of animals from a variety of different species depicting empathy towards vulnerable others. Or rescuing them from a range of different circumstances. And so the histories of feral infants become more plausible.

Samantha Hurn, Lecturer in Anthropology and Programme Director for MA and PhD Anthrozoology, University of Exeter

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