Feral Children and Clever Animals: Reflections on Human Nature

By Douglas Keith Candland | Go to book overview
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Nature and Nurture: Children Without Human Parenting

ON A SUMMER day, at the time when hay was being harvested near the now German town of Hameln, Jürgen Meyer, who had been working the fields, met "a naked, brownish, black-haired creature, who was running up and down, and was about the size of a boy of twelve years old. It uttered no human sound, but was happily enticed [into the town] by its astonished discoverer showing it two apples in his hand, and entrapped within the Bridge-gate. There it was at first received by a mob of street boys, but was very soon afterwards placed for safe custody in the Hospital of the Holy Ghost, by order of the Burgomaster [Mayor] Severin." 1

The year was 1724.

Peter, the name given by the street gangs to the boy, showed few signs of socialization or civility. When made comfortable in the hospital (more of a youth hostel, it would seem, than a place for the ill), he tried to leave in any way possible, sometimes by door and sometimes by window. Always alert and suspicious, he sat on his haunches or waited on all-fours, as would a four-footed animal. Seemingly unused to beds, he rolled back and forth on the straw pallet provided. He did not care for cooked foods but readily ate raw vegetables and grass. He captured birds, dismembered them, and ate the pieces. He showed approval of foodstuffs by beating his chest with his fists. When fitted with shoes, he learned to wear them but preferred not to do so. He liked having a cap put on his head and enjoyed tossing it in the water to see it "swim." He did not enjoy wearing clothes but learned to do so. His senses of hearing and smell were said to be sharp. He appeared to enjoy music.

Some thought Peter to be a true feral 2 man, a human being raised not by other human beings but by the natural state provided by the wild. 3 He was surely capable of learning, for he had learned from his experiences how to deal with the natural environment of the forest. Yet he was untouched by human contact, human demands, and human forms of socialization (Figure 1.1).

Peter's stay in the hospital was brief. We have available a contempo


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