This week saw reports of a eight-year old girl raised by monkeys in Uttar Pradesh. Inevitably the media compared her to Mowgli, a fictitious example selected ahead of those presented as fact. In 1852 Colonel William Sleeman documented seven cases of wolf boys in India. Other reports followed, in memoirs, correspondence, lectures, and newspapers. John Lockwood Kipling included some in his 1891 book, Beast and Man. Perhaps this inspired his son Rudyard, to create Mowgli.
The most comprehensive, and controversial, account of Indian wolf children was published in 1942. The Reverend Joseph Singh was in charge of an orphanage at Midnapore, in 1920, when he claimed to rescue two girls from a wolf den inside a termite mound. He kept a diary chronicling their development and took photographs. In 2007 a French surgeon, Serge Aroles, concluded that the story was a hoax. Yet there is no doubt that the girls existed. One, Kamala, survived in the orphanage until 1927. Forty years later Disney made an animated movie of The Jungle Book.
Subsequent movies, and a cartoon series, illustrate the timeless appeal of Kipling’s stories. In contrast Reverend Singh and Sleeman’s wolf boys have largely been forgotten. If we are to understand how a child came to be found living with monkeys, we must acknowledge and account for similar stories from our past.