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Friday, 8 February, 2002, 10:16 GMT
Savage girls and wild boys
Paul and Virginia by Julia Margaret Cameron
Newton's study challenges notions of civilisation
Why do tales of children being raised by wild animals capture the imagination of the public?

According to Michael Newton, author of a new book entitled Savage Girls And Wild Boys, the fascination lies in the notion that human beings can be stripped back to their base level.

Speaking to BBC World Service's Everywoman programme, he explained: "I think we are fascinated by the question, 'what makes us a human being?'

"These stories represent a sense of the essence of the human being. What we would be like if we were outside of society - what are we like essentially?"

'Monkey boy'

There are many documented stories and legends of children growing up in the wild.

One well-known case detailed in Mr Newton's book tells how in Uganda, in 1998, a young girl was attacked by wild vervet monkeys while out collecting firewood.

Among her attackers she spotted a strange creature:

"It was some kind of monkey, but it looked like a person," the girl told Mr Newton.

"I grabbed a stick and poked him and he fell out of the tree. He had hair all over his body - thick hair and the hair on his head was so long and curly."

The creature turned out to be an orphan who had escaped to the forest from a family fight where he had witnessed his father killing his mother.

John "monkey boy" Ssebunya
The boy, John Ssebunya, was so afraid for his life that he never returned home from the forest.

Later he recalled his time in the wild: "It was very frightening, but then I saw the monkeys and they brought all this food to me.

"The monkeys used to love me - we played together all the time."

Psychologist, Professor Candland, was asked to examine the case of the "monkey boy".

After observing the boy's interactions with a group of primates, he concluded that John Ssebunya had spent time "living among" the animals, "but there was no way to know for how long or what they did for him."

In his view, "the vervets certainly didn't care for him in any real sense."

Social interaction

With limited scientific data, scientists have been unwilling to fully accept the many stories of children being nurtured by animals.

Much doubt has been cast on the 400 or so supposedly true accounts of such feral children.

However, in Mr Newton's view, while children may not be "raised" by animals they can develop a special relationship with them.

Tarzan and Jane
Tall tales of being raised in the wild

In his book, Mr Newton charts the story of Ivan Mishukov who, aged four, left his abusive family home in Moscow, Russia to live on the streets.

Running with a pack of wild dogs, the child began to beg, giving a portion of the food he cadged each time to one particular pack of dogs.

The dogs grew to trust him and eventually took him on as their pack leader.

The boy spent two years living in this way, but as Mr Newton explained, when Ivan Mishukov was finally caught, the limited human contact that he had experienced stood him in good stead.

"He already had language and contact to human beings through his begging," he said.

"I think what was happening was that he had entered into a symbiotic relationship with the dogs."

After a period in a children's home, Ivan Mishukov now lives a normal life, although, "apparently he dreams of dogs now".

According to Mr Newton, his successful reintroduction to society demonstrates how, "depending on what has happened to them, when the children have had several years in a domestic society and then have a period of isolation, recovery is very possible."

Everywoman, BBC World Service
"A little wild boy was spotted and later captured"
See also:

20 Jun 01 | UK
06 Oct 99 | UK
21 May 01 | South Asia
26 May 01 | South Asia
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