Case Studies

The Boy Who Was Raised by Wolves, Part I

Victor, the Wild Child of Aveyron

The legend of Victor’s early childhood sounds like something straight out of The Jungle Book: the story goes that he was raised by wolves until early adolescence, never learning to communicate or function in society, until the day he decided to join the village next to the woods that had been his home for as long as he could remember.

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Victor was spotted for the first time on the edge of the woods in 1794 but stayed hidden for another three years until some hunters noticed what looked to be a naked child, about six years old, watching them from the treeline. Victor froze as they approached, not comprehending what was happening but instinctively feeling the sensation we call “stranger danger,” so he got a late start running back into the woods. They caught up with him just as he scrambled up a tree and were able to pull him down. His stay in the village didn’t last long; he ran off and was periodically sighted and chased for another three years.

After that first defeat by the hunters, no one could ever catch him once he disappeared back into the woods, so they would wait until he came out every few months. They didn’t have a particularly high success rate: out of 9 attempted captures after his first race with the hunters, they were never again successful. The villagers would wake up in the morning to find that a few loaves of bread had been stolen from one of the houses and know that they’d missed another chance to catch the wild child in the woods.

Having avoided human contact so completely, it is likely that he could have kept hidden if he had so desired. Maybe he’d realized he enjoyed bread and cooked meats more than whatever he had scavenged in the forest, and one can imagine him spying on a cozy fire that seemed much warmer than his hideaway in the woods. Maybe he was even a little curious about these strange creatures that looked just like him. Whatever the reason, the outcome was the same: just a few days after New Years 1800, Victor walked out of the woods and into the village, ready to join society… whatever that was.

A few people came to meet Victor in hopes that he was their long-lost child. No one claimed him. The gossip around town was that he was the unwanted bastard of a local nobleman. A physician named Itard who got to know the boy quite well hypothesized later that Victor “lived in an absolute solitude from his fourth or fifth almost to his twelfth year, which is the age he may have been when he was taken in the Caune woods” (Itard). At the end of Victor’s story, I will make the case for why Victor actually was raised from infancy or toddlerhood by wolves (it’s not as crazy as it sounds, stay with me here).

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Now that Victor had agreed to live within society, society had to figure out what to do with this strange wolf-boy who barked and growled like his alleged foster family of wild animals. No one was surprised that he didn’t speak fluent French, but he couldn’t even learn a single word once he’d met other people. No one ever talks about how Mowgli wouldn’t have been able to communicate, let alone flirt, with the pretty girl fetching water, and don’t even ask how long it took her to convince him to use a designated area to relieve himself.

When the hunters had initially caught Victor in 1797, they had handed him off to an elderly widow before he ran away a few days later, so when he came back to stay three years later, the villagers placed him in the only institution that seemed even remotely related to his unique situation: the Institute for Deaf-Mutes.

It didn’t take a lot of observation to realize that Victor was neither deaf nor mute so this predictably turned out to be a bad idea, but there was no such thing as special education or even mental hospitals for children. The hospitals for the physically disabled were clearly a poor fit since the malnourished boy was apparently quick enough to outrun the better-fed villagers since the initial rundown years ago, and handing him over to the asylums was too horrible a fate for the villagers to subject him to.

They were running out of options; an asylum was looking to be the only choice, despite being considered disgusting and cruel even by contemporary standards. Luckily for Victor, a young physician who worked with his deaf peers at the institution was interested in improving the quality of life for children with hearing impairment. He took an interest in the wild child and asked to take over custody of him in exchange for the opportunity to study his language skills.

Part II: Teaching Victor language and empathy

 

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