Jungle girl and monkey boy

Ransom Riggs

Every once in a while, I read about a "wild child" that's been discovered, living outside in some rural place, who has forgotten what it was to be civilized. Usually, these are stories about people who lived hundreds of years ago, when it was a lot easier to find places in the world unaffected by modernity. (You know: buildings and stuff.) But every once in a once in a while, I see a modern story like this -- and this is one of those whiles.

Meet Rochom P'ngieng, aka "Jungle Girl." She is (was?) Cambodian, and disappeared while herding cattle when she was eight. That was nineteen years ago. Last week, a villager noticed a skinny, naked creature stealing rice from her farm, so she staked off an area and managed to trap it -- "it" turning out to be Rochom. Authorities describe her as "half-man, half-animal," nothing but "skin and bone" and she seems to have lost all her language skills. She also hunches forward when she walks, like a monkey; but as different as she had become, a recognizable scar (and a DNA test) helped prove her identity. Her reintroduction to society is not going so well. She refuses to wear clothes, is constantly freaked out, and her father suggests that he may return her to the jungle, where he believes she will be more comfortable (despite the whole naked/starving thing, apparently).

Rochom isn't the only such story in recent times, nor perhaps even the most amazing. Though her 19 years in the wild is mind-blowing, in 1987 an orphaned Ugandan toddler named John Ssabunnya was abandoned in the jungle, where he faced almost certain death. If it weren't for a group of good-samaritan monkeys, that would've been the case. They raised him as their own, and when he was found at age five, he lived with them in trees and seemed to communicate with them. As authorities took him away, the monkeys fought fiercely to protect him, throwing rocks and coconuts. To this day, he still has an uncanny repoire with African Green monkeys, the species which raised him. (He also discovered, as he learned to speak, that he has an impressive singing voice, and joined a touring children's choir.)