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'Dog Boy': The Complicated Humanity Of A Wild Child

Stories about wild children have been around since ancient times. They also pop up every so often in the news. An abandoned child, found living among animals, walking on all fours, unable to speak. They become objects of curiosity, even exploitation.

To Australian writer Eva Hornung, these children are stories of extraordinary survival. Hornung takes another look at this time-honored tale in her new novel, Dog Boy.

Dog Boy is a new entry in a long tradition that dates at least back to an origin myth of a cornerstone of Western civilization. The twin brothers Romulus and Remus, raised by a she-wolf, were the founders of Rome. Mowgli was the hero of Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book, and the Disney cartoon that followed. Tarzan, the "King of the Jungle," was, in the 1984 film version of the story created by Edgar Rice Burroughs, discovered by a European explorer and educated in the ways of humans.

It is just the question of who, or what, the wild child is -- and whether he belongs to civilization or nature -- that has intrigued people so much through the ages. Whether the story is pure fiction or based on the discovery of a real child, the idea of a vulnerable human living among animals engenders fascination.

"There is a long history of the idealization of such 'children of nature' as they were sometimes called," says Michael Newton, the author of Savage Girls and Wild Boys: A History of Feral Children. .

Over the years, Newton says, feral children have been both romanticized and victimized. They are, he says, objects of both desire and disgust.

"They are imagined as being visionary beings who are closer to nature than we are, who experience things more fully, who are more passionate, who can live in the moment in ways that rational civilized people can't," Newton says. "At the same time, they are smelly, they are slovenly, they eat horribly, and it's that combination of a desire to be in these children's position and at the same time a kind of recoil from what it would mean really to live as an animal that really goes to the heart of such stories."

Since writing his book, Newton says he is regularly notified of the existence of a "new" wild child. Sometimes these discoveries prove to be hoaxes, but many are not. One of the most famous wild children discovered in recent years was Ivan Mishukov, who lived with a pack of wild dogs in Moscow for two years. It was Ivan's story that caught the attention of Hornung.

"What gripped my imagination at the time, I think, is what would grip anyone," Hornung says. "Imagining a child living with dogs through minus-27-degree winters -- with no cooked food, presumably -- and with no heating. And so, it got its claws into me, so to speak."

In Hornung's novel, the "Dog Boy" is 4-year-old Romochka. Abandoned by his mother just as Russia's harsh winter is approaching, Romochka finds warmth, nourishment and companionship with a pack of dogs. But Hornung's story is no fairy tale. She has imagined the life of a dog so thoroughly you can almost smell the stench of the den.

Because her wild boy lives in a city instead of a jungle and could already speak before living with the dogs, Hornung envisioned him moving between the world of humans and the world of dogs as he needs to.

"I had this notion that Romochka could demonstrate something I know which is the enormous flexibility and mutability of human selfhood," Hornung says. "Romochka ends up with -- not a selfhood that is less than human, but one that is more, that encompasses a kind of doghood as well as a boyhood. And he is able to exploit boyhood or doghood according to where he feels he will have the best chance of survival."

Though Romochka's life with the dogs is brutal, and at times violent, it is his encounters with humans which prove to be the most horrifying. Living on the outskirts of Moscow, where gangs of homeless children prey on the vulnerable, he finds that police torment the innocent instead of protecting them. When Romochka is picked up by the police, he retreats completely into being a dog to escape their brutality.

"He ate glumly," Hornung writes, "fought when there was opportunity, and snarled to comfort himself. Despite this retreat, however, another feeling crept over him, like the season tipping from summer to autumn. It seeped into him, quelling all other feelings. It was sadness, and with it came, first in moments, and then more often, the snowfall of despair."

Feral children, says Newton, are often the victims of abuse. They are abandoned by those who should take care of them, yet when people encounter them they are not accepted as fully human.

"These children, on one level, represent really extreme instances of human cruelty," Newton says. "And then they also transcend that cruelty and it moves into a kind reconciliation with nature. And nature, which is often thought of as hostile to man or human beings, is suddenly revealed to be more kindly than human beings are themselves."

Eva Hornung says her story is not about setting animals above humans. But she did set out to challenge our ideas about what it means to be human.

"I think holding animals at a very great distance from ourselves and seeing ourselves as distinct from animals allows us great freedom in what we do with animals and that fascinates me. It fascinates me that our definition of being human is so flawed," Horning says.

Romochka's rescue at the end of the book raises as many questions as it answers. As he prepares to enter the world of humans once and for all, it is clear that he is leaving an important part of himself behind, in the den he once called home.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

BooksWeekend Edition Sunday
Lynn Neary is an NPR arts correspondent covering books and publishing.