The new “Jungle Book” movie is now in cinemas, and once again it features the century-old tale of Mowgli, an orphaned boy raised by the inhabitants of the jungle. Apart from the astoundingly awesome fact that Bill Murray is voicing Baloo, the soft-hearted bear, the movie’s story will never fail to win viewers over thanks to its fantastical take on a human living among a menagerie of exotic animals in the wild.
Although such a complex collection of animals makes for a piece of visually resplendent fiction, you may be wondering if there’s any truth behind a boy being raised by wolves. There are various mythological or literary whisperings about babies being reared in this way, including Tarzan – looked after by great apes – and Romulus and Remus, the supposed founders of Rome, who were also tended to by wolves.
So is there any evidence or science at all behind the tales of the so-called “feral children,” or is it all just the stuff of legends? Let’s take a look.
Once Upon A Time In Ukraine
Oxana Malaya’s story. Animal Planet via YouTube
Oxana Malaya, as the story goes, was abandoned by her parents in the village of Novaya Blagoveschenka as a 3-year-old child. She was left outside in the cold, so she moved to where there was warmth and food, which in this case was a hovel sheltering dogs eating raw meat. She supposedly joined them and spent five years gradually losing human linguistic and behavioral traits and adopting far more canine ones.
When she was found in 1991, the eight-year-old Oxana was more dog than human, and nowadays she is assigned to a foster home for the mentally-disabled, where she helps out on the farm. Multiple documentaries have been made about her, and although she used to frequently bark, ran around on all fours, slept on the floor, and ate like a dog, she is now able to suppress such behaviors.
The problem is that there’s no documented proof of any kind that she lived with dogs in this way. Although her behaviors seem real, this could all be the result of her being mentally impaired, and there would be no way to tell the difference.
Raised By Wolves
A captive Indian wolf (Canis lupus pallipes). Pavan Kunder/Wikimedia Commons; CC BY 2.0
Of the other feral children stories drifting around, one of the most intriguing is that of a boy named Ramu who, just like Mowgli, was raised by Indian wolves – or so it seems.
In 1976, he was said to have been found by wolf cubs, behaving as they did; he even had claw-like nails. The missionaries that adopted him noted that he learned how to bathe and dress, but never to speak. At night, he’d raid the nearby chicken coops. He died in 1985, and his obituary made the front page of the Times of India.
An investigation by the Los Angeles Times found that the story began to unravel with weird parallels to the Rudyard Kipling collection of stories – the Jungle Book – first written in 1894. People at the missionary’s retreat, including an elderly lawyer, spoke about another wolf boy called Bhaloo who was found running alongside aggressive wolf cubs, who was adopted by another person in a nearby village.
Ultimately, the tales of Bhaloo and Ramu could not be confirmed. It seems that there are plenty of legends of feral children out there for anyone to peruse, but few of them have documented evidence of their occurrence.
Adoption In The Wild
Chimpanzees are like us in many ways – so would they adopt a baby that isn’t theirs? Gudkov Andrey/Shutterstock
In any case, the crux of the matter here is not that children can be abandoned and survive in the wild – because this does happen – but whether animals of completely different species would want to share their resources and even protect someone who isn’t one of their own in any way.
Chimpanzees, with their remarkable genetic, social, intellectual and behavioral traits, are seen as the closest living evolutionary cousins to humans, but this doesn’t mean they’d adopt a human child. They certainly show empathy and kindness, but they’re also documented as engaging in both murder and warfare, either to displace another male rising up the social hierarchy or to defend their territory, respectively.
They’re also known to engage in infanticide, as are types of monkeys, bears, penguins, and a whole host of animals. Nevertheless, chimpanzees have been known to adopt other orphaned chimps, both in captivity and in the wild.
Speaking less horrifically, even though they may not kill you, if you don’t serve a use to some animals – like cats, who see humans as inessential landlords – they may simply discard you entirely, leaving you to fend for yourself. These things considered, it seems pretty unlikely that animals would be willing to adopt an alien-looking, resource-swilling human child.
However, there are plenty of cases of animals actually adopting or at least befriending members of other species. Captive dogs have nursed baby squirrels and owls, and one particular captive gorilla has a penchant for adopting kittens, for example. Even the wild has its share of adoptions, including a pod of sperm whales that took care of a deformed bottlenose dolphin.
Researchers have noted that one of the main forms of animal adoption is when a creature adopts a member of its own species, something known as instinctive adoption. Looking after your own is a way to ensure DNA that is at least somewhat similar to yours is passed on to the next generation.
Mutual benefit also helps; in the case of the deformed bottlenose dolphin, it was likely adopted because it made the group stronger overall. As long as you aren’t taking up too many resources, you’d likely be fine, it seems. In many cases, adoption of an individual occurs when a new mother takes on a young orphan, perhaps due to their temporarily higher levels of oxytocin, a hormone known to promote social bonding.
You’re Either With Us Or Against Us
In the wild, mutual benefit may be the answer to this tantalizing question. Peter Batarseh/Shutterstock
With respect to mutual benefit, one tale of feral children stands out: Between the ages of 4 and 6, Ivan Mishukov befriended some wild dogs on the streets of Moscow. He eventually gained their trust completely and became their pack leader; they protected him like he was one of their own, and they all shared food together.
Although it’s still difficult to verify the truth of this story, there’s less skepticism floating around the Internet than usual when it comes to tales like these. So perhaps a young human could be adopted by a wild animal, as long as they pulled their weight in their new society – we just haven’t seen verifiable, convincing, documented evidence of it just yet.
In Mowgli’s case, it could just possibly be true: wolves have been observed adopting other pups. Tiny humans, though, may be seen as little more than a tasty amuse-bouche.