Case Studies

The Boy Who Was Raised by Wolves, Part III

Exploring the underlying causes of Victor’s learning disabilities

At the end of Part II, we had discovered that Victor’s inability to learn language had not kept him from learning a distinctly human form of empathy and attachment. Contemporary and modern experts of various fields have never come to a consensus regarding Victor’s mental health or what his upbringing looked like before joining the village. Using established linguistic theories of acquisition and scientific evidence of animal behavior in the wild, I will argue the best possible answer: Victor really was raised by wolves.

As I mentioned at the beginning of Victor’s story, Itard himself had said he believed that Victor didn’t start living alone in the woods until he was around five. I get it, five years old is young, but to lose all ability to communicate, not to mention all memory of what humans even are?

The evidence for the seemingly arbitrary age of five is that we had already figured out by then that humans are essentially helpless during their early childhood, which is objectively true. Perhaps he was mentally disabled, you might say. There are experts and theorists, including Itard and his contemporaries, who would agree with you, with modern psychiatrists pointing specifically to similarities with autism.

I respectfully disagree.

The age of abandonment

There are several problems with the age Itard places Victor at when he begins living in the woods. Ignoring the mental health element for the moment, if Victor had been born a neurotypical child, he would have been completely fluent in his native tongue by five, but in practice wasn’t able to replicate or even recognize a single human phoneme by the time he was found, and that was just one discovery regarding his ignorance of typical human behavior.

By the time they finish their first year, the average child has spoken a few words, recognizes individual people’s names, and understands the meaning of simple, oft-repeated words like “no” and “hi.” Over the next five years, their verbal language becomes so fluent that they can create unique sentences to describe ideas and events; only the details of pronunciation are left to polish up. There was not even a trace that this had happened for Victor.

One of the first physicians to run experiments on Victor stripped him naked and threw him out into the harsh January winter air, apparently just to see what would happen, only to stare in amazement as Victor frolicked happily in the snow, apparently accustomed to such exposure. Victor was initially frightened and bewildered by humans and, by extension, anything made by humans for years until he met Itard, which would be odd for a child who had lived among them for his first five years. Even later in life, he preferred to stay with Madam Guérin in their quiet sanctuary away from the scarier parts of society, like crowds and buildings that were simply too tall for Victor’s liking. “But what if he had cognitive or developmental disabilities?” you might ask.

Victor’s mental health

I do not disagree with the theory that Victor had mental disabilities by the time Itard met him. We could determine several likely diagnoses, such as PTSD and the very likely presence of severe learning disabilities. However, my contention is with the idea that these disabilities were necessarily present before being left in the woods, or that they would have been present regardless of the circumstances of his early childhood.

A diagnosis of severe autism would explain his inability to produce any aspect of language despite being around humans during the most important years of language development, but that contradicts the fact that he learned and produced the “language” of the wolves. The argument for mental disability hinges on a contradiction that is hard to explain away: babies can only differentiate between sounds that aren’t in their native language for the first year of their life.

Victor could differentiate animal sounds that other humans could not. Perhaps he had practiced mimicking his animal neighbors for years, which is enough for a prepubescent child to learn how to speak a language fluently. But if he was mentally disabled to the point where he could never replicate a single human sound, which he would have heard during the first critical period and reinforced over the next 4-5 years, then why would he be able to do that with brand new sounds four years after the critical period ends?

He could produce phonemes that no one could replicate, meaning that the sounds he made differed sufficiently from the local (human) dialects, making them impossible to learn for any adult speakers of the language Victor should have heard consistently before age five. These wolf-like vocalizations were quite predictable (e.g. howling when sad, whining when anxious), indicating an understanding of context and semantics which is often lacking for non-verbal children with autism.

It’s possible that he had a different, equally severe mental disability, but that sets up a scenario that I find even less likely than his being raised by wolves: a preschool-aged child with a severe mental illness survived for seven years in a climate with snowfall in the winters, without assistance from human or beast, while simultaneously fending off the wolves that he could mimic perfectly, not to mention evading capture by a bunch of villagers with no such cognitive difficulties who were chasing after a malnourished 6-year-old. Then he joined society and, once in a supportive environment, quickly learned how to express empathy, affection, and attachment to trusted adults, all of which are traits of mammals you might find in the woods but not generally of children with a disability so severe that it renders them non-verbal with no hope of improvement.

The case for Victor being the real-life Mowgli

One day, after totally being raised by wolves as a baby, he got too big and scary-looking, was too hard to keep feeding once he was no longer a baby, or endangered them by not being able to learn Advanced Wolf Tactics like stalking, hunting, and finding shelter. I get that it sounds ridiculous, because it is, but this absurdity is actually based on observable behaviors in the wild.

Animals often care for babies of other species while they’re still helpless but may abandon them once they’re no longer needy babies. This is quite common with domesticated animals but there is a surprisingly long list of instances that have been observed in the wild, as well. Some animals’ entire survival depends on tricking another species into not noticing that she just dropped a bunch of her babies off with someone else’s kids. At some point, depending on how observant the adoptive species is, the mother realizes that this baby isn’t theirs but takes care of it, anyway.

You may recognize this as the plot of “The Ugly Duckling” but it is also the technique of several real, very rude animals like the Cowbird. Other animals have an unavoidable, biological drive to care for abandoned young whether they’re the same species or not, as with the adorable marine mammal example pictured below:


A baby bottlenose dolphin is left behind because of her spinal deformity, but a family of sperm whales adopts her as one of their own. Here you can see the baby affectionately rubbing up against a member of her new family. (via NatGeo)

Have none of these experts ever seen the YouTube video of a tiger nursing an orphaned litter of piglets? There’s no way that’s a more believable story than Victor and the wolves.

As for Victor, he lived to be about 40, staying with his beloved Madame Guérin until his death. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if he was autistic, raised by wolves, or developed the learning disabilities, impulsivity, and memory loss often associated with severe PTSD caused by the intense trauma of being abandoned to die and, one might assume, by not having a particularly enviable childhood leading up to that event. While his linguistic “failures” afford us a crucial insight into the role of environment on language acquisition, it was his ability to express what it really means to be human that convinced countless future scientists, doctors, and educators that non-verbal people are, in fact, people.

Helen Keller (left), deaf and blind from a childhood illness, was considered a lost cause until Anne Sullivan helped her show everyone how brilliant and compassionate those with limited communication can be when they’re given the chance to learn and be love

A final note

Full disclosure: I work with children who have social/emotional disorders and learning disabilities, so this particular story is close to my heart. I hope you’ve found that it humanizes a child who deserved to be protected, educated, and loved, because 200 years later, many children with similar disabilities are not lucky enough to be rescued from poorly-funded facilities by people like Itard and Guérin.
mentalhealthstatsIf you’re interested in finding ways to help, this is a list of charities ranked by the percentage of donation money that goes directly to mental health research and services.

Thank you to all who support kids like the ones I work with, because they’re awesome.


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