Feral children are those said to have been nurtured and reared by animals in the wild. Children who have wandered off and survived on their own and children who have been deliberately deprived of human contact may also be described as feral. These children are of interest to the scientific community because they may shed light on the origins of language and on the interrelation of culture and biology. There have been more than 40 recorded cases of children being reared by animals, from a 14th-century Hessian wolf child to such 20th-century cases as a gazelle boy in the Western Sahara and a wolf boy in Sultanpur, India. Most of the evidence for these cases, however, has been second-hand and lacking in essential detail, and no one case has afforded conclusive proof. Because feral children are often severely retarded when restored to human society, it is speculated that they are victims of autism who have been abandoned by their parents.

The best documented account of feral children is that of the wolf children of Midnapore, India, who were dug out of a wolf den by an Anglican missionary, the Reverend J.A.L. Singh, in 1920. Singh claimed that he personally rescued the children after having seen them living with the wolves. Although the children developed some social skills and the rudiments of language, they never became completely normal, and they died young. There is, however, no way of knowing to what extend their limitations were a result of cultural deprivation.

Fictionalized accounts of feral children have recurred throughout history, from the legend of ROMULUS AND REMUS to the more recent fictions of Mowgli in Rudyard Kipling's JUNGLE BOOK (1894) and TARZAN OF THE APES in several works by Edgar Rice Burroughs. They have been the themes of the films The Wild Child (1970) by Francois Truffault and The Mystery of Kaspar Hauser (1974) by Werner Herzog. The latter, derived from the novel by Jakob Wasserman, is also based on a true case.