You may have heard of the phenomenon of feral children, or children whose behavior has been permanently altered because they were “raised” by animals. It sounds like something out of a fantasy novel, but there have actually been a handful of real cases. These children are not the norm when it comes to mental or even physical development, which makes their cases equal parts fascinating and heartbreaking.
One of the most well-documented cases of a feral child was that of a Ukrainian girl named Oxana, who was raised by dogs for years. Her story offers an interesting look at the classic “nature versus nurture” debate regarding human development for one unique reason: her parents let it happen!
Born in the small Ukrainian village of Novaya Blagoveschenka in 1983, Oxana Malaya had one of the most unusual childhoods imaginable. At only three years old, Oxana’s parents left her outside in a dog kennel—on purpose.
The little girl’s parents, both alcoholics, neglected her for years. Abandoned in the family’s back yard and left to fend for herself, Oxana found comfort and warmth among the dogs on her property. They took to the toddler the way they would a puppy and became her surrogate caretakers.
Obviously, dogs are not fit to be the sole parental figures of human children. Oxana learned through their examples, surviving on raw meat and other scraps. She grew up running on all fours, barking, growling, and imitating dog behavior as best she could.
This continued for five years, until Oxana was eight years old. That was when a neighbor contacted local authorities about witnessing a child living among animals. By then, she could barely even speak—she only communicated through barks.
At that point, it was unclear if Oxana’s birth parents were still a part of her life in some way. If anything, they seemed so neglectful that they simply treated the feral child like a stray dog.
Meanwhile, Oxana had become such a valued member of her “pack” that they were highly protective of her once the authorities tried to take her away. The dogs had to be bribed with treats before they would cooperate.
Oxana was brought into police custody and then to an orphanage, where she quickly made a connection with the dogs at the center. She even tried to smuggle one of them into her room. Not surprisingly, she had trouble relating to the other children…
As Oxana grew up, it was difficult for her to reenter human society. Even more than a decade after she was removed from the yard, she still had an extraordinary ability to perform certain dog-like behaviors, like howling and even jumping on all fours.
Despite her highly unusual upbringing, Oxana was still quite intelligent, and she had the ability to understand relatively difficult language elements like prepositions. Unlike some other feral children, she could also recognize her reflection as her own.
Even after she was removed from her feral life, she still walked on all fours occasionally. Her bark was so well-developed that it was said to sound like an actual dog’s bark, rather than the sound of a human trying to imitate a dog!
Lyn Fry, a British psychologist who specialized in studying feral children, was surprised when he met her; he’d heard rumors that she was aggressive and “socially inept.” Yet he was impressed with her progress…
Oxana even thanked the researcher when he gave her a toy, proving that she had at least a cursory understanding of human customs. “Superficially, you would never know this was a young woman raised by dogs,” Lyn claimed.
It was encouraging to hear that she fully identified as a human after living such a different life for so many formative years. As years went by, Oxana learned to connect with people, though she was subjected to offensive nicknames like “dog girl.”
Lyn also explained that Oxana could be surprisingly charming. “She has a sense of humor,” he said. “She likes to be the center of attention, to make people laugh. Showing off is quite a surprising skill when you consider her background.”
Oxana could communicate surprisingly effectively, but the way she spoke was still a bit unusual. Lyn explained that she would speak “flatly as though it’s an order. There is no cadence or rhythm or music to her speech, no inflection or tone.”
Her speaking ability was also impressive because it was generally understood that children lose their capacity to learn language before the age of five. It seemed that Oxana must’ve picked up some of those abilities before her abandonment, making it easier to catch up.
Oxana eventually found herself in a relationship. She wanted to open up to her boyfriend about her past, but when she did, his reaction wasn’t what she hoped it would be. When she showed him she could run and bark like a dog, he was so startled he broke up with her.
For a 2003 documentary, Oxana actually briefly reunited with her father, but the meeting was strained. They were silent for a significant period of time before Oxana finally broke it by saying “hello…”
As recently as 2013, Oxana appeared on Ukrainian television to explain how her life had developed since first making headlines in 1991. She said that she lived on a farm with a boyfriend and, unsurprisingly, enjoyed taking care of animals.
According to experts, because of the way her unconventional experiences forced her to stunt her growth, Oxana would probably never be able to live independently, relying instead on adult care facilities. Yet none of that changed how impressive her development has been…
There’s definitely no getting around the unusual circumstances behind Oxana’s life, but even if she’s never “normal,” it seems she’s done a remarkable job adjusting to mainstream society. Hopefully, things will only continue to improve for this young woman!