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Wednesday, 20 June, 2001, 14:11 GMT 15:11 UK
Children in wolves' clothing
A Panamanian boy dressed as a dog
Panama: Children dress as dogs to ward off evil spirits
The public has always been fascinated by tales of children who have been raised by animals. Chile's latest "Dog Boy" is no exception, writes BBC News Online's Ryan Dilley.

An 11-year-old Chilean boy who was found living with a pack of street dogs did not survive by suckling from one of the animals, as media reports had suggested.

When asked if he had drunk the milk of one of 15 feral dogs with whom he shared a cave in the southern port of Talcahauno, the boy known as Alex replied: "Yes, because I was thirsty."

Wolf and a cub
Room for another little one?
Authorities now insist the child was joking.

Though Alex, dubbed "Dog Boy" by the world's press, scavenged for food alongside his canine companions, there appears to be little evidence to support any idea that the creatures nurtured him.

Rather than being reared by the dogs, it seems he only escaped from a government care home within the last two years ago. In any case, he displays few of the characteristics of true feral children, such as a hunched stance or inability to talk.

Clever animals

But there is something people find appealing about this and similar stories. Cultures around the world brim with myths and folklore concerning cases of inter species adoption.

Professor Douglas Candland, author of Feral Children and Clever Animals, says there is "something about being human that makes us want to believe animals will wean our young."

Roman soldiers
Rome was founded on the myth of animal adoption
Perhaps the most potent of these is the legend of Romulus and Remus - the twin sons of the god Mars credited with founding the city of Rome.

According to a story originating in the fourth century BC, the pair were ordered to be cast adrift in the Tiber, but were saved from starvation by a she-wolf.

Their brief period in the wolf's care seemed to do little for the duo's interpersonal skills - Romulus killed his brother during a dispute about where to build their city.

Cry wolf

Despite this fraternal bust-up, the image of the pair suckling for the she-wolf become the enduring emblem of Rome.

Other nurturing she-wolves have also had an impact on more recent popular culture.

Cases of Indian children being raised by the widely feared beasts are said to have inspired Rudyard Kipling to write The Jungle Book.

Molly Badham and Tommy
"Let me drive, mum."
The book's central character, Mowgli, was based on a child found near Lucknow in the 1870s. Though taken away from his wolf family, the child was never successfully "tamed".

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

British adventurer Sir William Sleeman said he saw the Lucknow wolf-boy for himself: "The boy went on all fours and seemed on the best possible terms with the old dam and the three young whelps, and the mother seemed to guard all four with equal care."

Evolutionary cousins

It's not just wolves though. Stories suggest the existence of foundlings such as the sow-girl of Salzburg, the gazelle-child of Syria and the sheep-boy of Ireland.

Given humans' close evolutionary relationship to monkeys, it is unsurprising that several "ape-child" stories have captured the popular imagination - perhaps fuelled by Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan books.

Tarzan
"And no monkey business"
Indeed, recent media reports of a creature, part man and part monkey, rampaging through the streets of Delhi transfixed readers worldwide and further terrified residents of the Indian capital.

A special team of Indian police officers say mass hysteria was to blame for the alleged sightings and attacks. Victims have suggested this is merely an excuse to explain the police's failure to catch the monkey man.

Monkey tale

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

Professor Candland says there is no evidence that any species of animal will provide for and raise a human infant.

John Ssebunya
John Ssebunya was found among monkeys
As a psychologist he was asked to examine the case of Ugandan teenager John Ssebunya, who was reportedly taken in by a troupe of Vervet monkeys when he was aged just four.

Observing the boy's interactions with a group of the primates, Professor Candland concluded that John had spent time "living among" the animals, "but there was no way to know for how long or what they did for him. The Vervets certainly didn't care for him in any real sense."

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See also:

18 Jun 01 | Americas
'Dog child' rescued
26 May 01 | South Asia
'Bear-man' follows monkey-man scare
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