Tales of children raised by animals continue to fascinate. Three authors inspired by untamed youths and their beastly guardians lead us into the wild...
Bobbie Pyron, author of The Dogs of Winter
Imagine going to bed feeling warm, loved and safe, then waking up the next morning to find yourself on the street with no home, no food and no one to protect and love you.
Now imagine you are only four years old and trying to survive on the streets of Moscow. That’s what happened to Ivan Mishukov, the real-life child who inspired my novel The Dogs of Winter.
After the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, government-run social support disappeared. Within a couple of years tens of thousands of children were living homeless on the streets – enough to fill the city of Manchester. Many banded together in the warmth of the Metro stations, stealing and begging. Older children and adults often preyed on them.
Ivan was just one of these children. Rather than throw in his lot with a gang of children, Ivan chose to live with a pack of wild street dogs. He helped them gather food. In exchange, they provided him with protection and kept him warm during the brutal Russian winters. In 1996 Ivan became one of the pack. They were like his family in every sense of the word. They hunted together, played together, mourned together and loved each other unconditionally. Ivan was a bright, well-spoken child, but when he was picked up by the police in 1998, he bit and fought and howled and barked, as wild as any animal.
How did Ivan survive day to day? How did he transform from being a civilised little boy to a wild child? What makes us human, and how do we define family? And who are the real ‘animals’? These are questions I explore in The Dogs of Winter, a fictionalised interpretation of the two years that Ivan lived with the dogs.
Several months after being taken to an orphanage, Ivan was reportedly asked why he fought so hard to stay with the dogs. “With the dogs,” he said, “I felt loved and protected.” Those words set me on a long journey of research, exploration and wonder that led to these opening lines: “I dream of dogs… I dream of wet tongues, flashing teeth, warm noses…”
The Dogs of Winter by Bobbie Pyron is published by Andersen Press .
Louis Nowra, author of Into that Forest
When I was 11, I had a serious head injury and I had to learn to speak properly again. The slow process of rehabilitation meant that I was an outsider at school. When I became a writer, I found myself drawn towards characters who don’t quite fit into society.
So it was natural for me to be fascinated with legends and myths about children being brought up by animals and struggling to become part of human society.
I was attracted to stories like Tarzan, who was brought up by apes; the so-called ‘Wild Boy of Aveyron’, found in a French forest in the 18th century; and the Indian ‘wolf children’ discovered in the early 20th century. When the New Zealand film director Vincent Ward and I decided to work on a project together, we gravitated towards finding an Australian take on such stories.
There was no real-life basis to the story we came up with about two girls raised by Tasmanian tigers, but we speculated that as the tigers’ behaviour was close to that of wolves – who have brought up children in legends – it could be a possible scenario.
The film didn’t happen but I always wanted to write a novel based on the story. But how to tell it? I spent the next ten years researching tigers and children brought up by animals.
As I did, contemporary cases kept cropping up, including a boy in Chile who lived with a pack of dogs for two years and a Russian child who lived with dogs and behaved like them.
I spent some time travelling through the verdant Tasmanian bush – which is very unlike the Australian mainland – getting to know the extraordinary landscape the tigers once lived in [the animals are now thought to be extinct].
I also studied Tasmanian tigers as much as I could, trying to make my depictions of their behaviour as realistic as possible. During my research I was intrigued by just how much of an animal we humans really are.
Other questions preoccupied me. What happens when we lose language? And can Hannah and Rebecca, the main characters of Into that Forest, ever be the same after the extreme experiences they have gone through? For Hannah herself the questions are irrelevant compared with the intense bond she has with the tigers.
Into that Forest by Louis Nowra is published by Egmont
, author of The Twnyning
They came to me through the fog and cold of a great city long ago – two children, alone and living wild on the streets. Their home is the hollowed-out heart of a municipal rubbish-tip.
I have always liked writing about outsiders and no one could be further outside normal, civilised life than my characters, Dogboy and Caz. Dogboy is 13 and has been abandoned by his parents. Surviving among the dogs in the city, and working for a ratcatcher called Bill Grubstaff, he has an instinctive understanding of animals.
Caz is two years younger and has run away from a dancing school of sinister repute. Her only companion, apart from Dogboy, is a pet rat called Malaika.
Rats are the other heroes of my book, The Twyning. No animal has fascinated me more, both in itself and in the feelings of fear and disgust it provokes in many humans. Rats have been part of my life as pets. I also see them in the wild scurrying about their ratty business most days.
They are resourceful, intelligent and brave. Unlike almost any other animal, they have been shown by scientists to have empathy for one another – one rat will choose to save another before taking food for itself. They are often useful, clearing up our rubbish.
Yet rats are unlikely to receive the David Attenborough treatment. Throughout history, they have been the object of human terror, hatred and revulsion. They, too, are outsiders.
One reasons for rats’ murky reputation may be their similarity to man. Like us, they can live off a wide variety of food. They are fertile and eager in the mating department. They have even had their own internal wars. Wherever mankind has gone, rats have never been far away.
In The Twyning, the rats also have powers which a mere human might consider magical. One of them, a young rat called Efren, finds pet rat Malaika with her humans, Dogboy and Caz, and takes shelter with them.
Bad things are happening outside. The ‘real’ world that portrays itself as normal and civilised turns out to be nothing of the kind. Caught up in momentous events are two different kinds of outcasts – street children and rats.
The Twyning by Terence Blacker is published by Head of Zeus
Famous feral fables
The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling
One of the most famous feral children of all time, ‘man-cub’ Mowgli flees the tiger Shere Khan only to be rescued and raised by a wolf pack and taught the ways of the jungle.
Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak
The story of young Max, who sails from his bedroom to an island inhabited by beasts and is soon made king of the ‘wild things’ he finds there, is one of the most-loved picture books of the 20th century.
The Water-Babies by Charles Kingsley
This Victorian story of Christian redemption takes place when Tom the chimney sweep falls into a river and dies, undergoing a transformation into a ‘water baby’ and receiving a series of moral lessons from the underwater creatures there.
The New Adventures of Tarzan by Andy Briggs
Brought up in the African jungle by apes, Tarzan is the archetypal feral child. His adventures continue today, commissioned by the estate of his creator, Edgar Rice Burroughs.