Oxana Malaya, Ukraine
For six years, Oxana Malaya spent her life living in a kennel with dogs. Totally abandoned by her alcoholic mother and father, she was discovered behaving more like an animal than a human child. She ran on all fours, panted with her tongue out, bared her teeth and barked, just like the dogs she had been living with.
For two centuries, wild children have been the subjects of fascinating study. Raised without love or social interaction, wild or feral children pose the question ‘what is it that makes us human?’ Since Oxana’s discovery, scientists have looked for clues in the handful of other recorded cases of feral children in their efforts to rehabilitate her.
Dr Bruce Perry of the Child Trauma Academy in Houston, Texas tells us “One of the central questions, in all of science, that have to do with humans is: Are we a product of our genes or a product of our experiences, the old nature or nurture issue.”
The doctors attempting to rehabilitate Oxana first want to learn the facts of her story. The information was sketchy. Oxana was born in November 1983 in Novaya Blagoveschenka, Ukraine. She weighed 5lb 11oz and had no abnormalities. Her parents were alcoholics and, one night, too drunk to care, they left their daughter outside. Looking for warmth, the three year old crawled into the farm kennel and curled up with the mongrel dogs who probably saved her life.
A concerned neighbour finally reported Oxana’s case to the authorities when the girl was eight. By then the effects of her time with the dogs had created serious consequences for Oxana’s development.
Anna Chalaya, director of the Odessa Institute recalls “She was more like a little dog than a human child. She couldn’t speak, or could hardly speak. In Fact, she didn’t seem to think it was necessary to speak at all”.
Lyn Fry an educational psychologist observers “When we’re talking about how a child learns to live with dogs, there’s obviously no deal, as such. There’s give and take, the dogs give their love, attention, and acceptance in a sense, while the child has to adapt to the dog’s situation. If that means eating raw meat and scavenging the rubbish tip, then that’s what has to be done in order to survive”.
Oxana did not know what a mirror was and showed no recognition of the reflected image of herself. This lack of self-awareness makes her, in some respects, more like an animal than a human.
Raised by wolves, the mythical brothers Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome, are perhaps the best-known feral children, but real cases are extremely rare and the process of learning how to rehabilitate such children has been slow and difficult.
The first scientifically documented case has a direct bearing on understanding Oxana’s condition. It occurred in 1800 in France. Two hunters had been out tracking deer in woods near Aveyron in the South West of France. For years, villagers had talked of a wild child who lurked in the forest. News of the capture spread fast and sent shockwaves throughout Europe. The young boy was taken to Paris where he was named Victor. The general medical profession thought him little more than a savage. Dr Jean Marc Gaspard Itard was the only man prepared to investigate the astonishing case in front of him. Confident he could civilise the boy, he began work.
Linda Blair a clinical psychologist explains “Dr Itard’s benchmarks for studying what makes us human were empathy and language. I think nowadays we would still agree, but I think we would add to that a sense of self, an awareness of self. Dr Itard was already there because empathy, caring for others, can’t really happen unless you have an awareness and a feeling of safety or peace within yourself”.
Although progress was slow, Dr Itard and his housekeeper, Madame Guerin, persevered. One lunchtime, as Victor was laying the table, he noticed that Mme. Guerin was crying; she had just lost her husband. Quietly he removed a place setting. This was the breakthrough for which Itard had been waiting. At last Victor was showing real human compassion, or empathy.
Michael Newton the author of Savage Girls and Wild Boys noted “By doing that, he was showing his ability to put himself in the position of another human being. Something which when he was first brought to Paris would have seemed impossible”.
Victor’s empathy satisfied Itard’s first test of humanity. He had taught the boy to feel, but could Victor now learn to speak? Itard knew that Victor would have to master vowel sounds, the building blocks of language. This time, Victor was at a loss. For him, it was all no more than a game. If the boy couldn’t discriminate between sounds it was likely that he would never learn to talk.
For the next 20 years, Victor would live with Mme. Guerin, happy but abandoned by the man who tried to civilise him.
Oxana Malaya was rescued from the wild at a younger age than Victor, but the question still remained as to whether the years spent living with dogs have damaged her chances of ever becoming a socialised human being.
There are few cases of feral children who have been able to fully compensate for the neglect they’ve suffered. Oxana is now 22, but her future still hangs in the balance. Have scientists learned enough from previous cases to rehabilitate her?
Oxana has made good progress; she has learned to talk which is unusual in cases of feral children. Linda Blair offers an explanation “Oxana had to have heard language on a regular basis. It may not have been directed to her, but she had to have been exposed to it and also to have seen humans talking to each other”. Victor never learned to talk and Genie Wiley, the wild girl from Los Angeles, although able to learn words, never mastered grammar so was unable to hold any kind of conversation.
In order to get a clearer sense of Oxana’s intellectual capacities Dr Lyn Fry asks her to draw a picture of her home with herself in it. “A drawing of a person has always been taken as a good judge of basic ability and her drawing was what you would expect from a six year old”.
Dr Fry has also brought some standard cognitive tests to assess Oxana’s verbal and non-verbal skills. After an exhaustive session, Oxana only manages to demonstrate the ability of a five year old.
Today, Oxana lives in the Baraboy Clinic in Odessa where she works with the farm animals. Dr Vladimir Nagorny offers his view “She’s only able to live this practical life in this particular community under the supervision of her carers”.
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