"I'm alone in the world. I don't know who I am. Please help me."
Those were the first words spoken by a 17-year-old boy who recently wandered into Berlin, Germany, from a nearby forest. As reported by London's Daily Telegraph, the teenager first arrived in Berlin on Sept. 5, walking into city hall with only a backpack and sleeping bag. Speaking English, he told bewildered city hall workers that his name is Ray, he's 17 and he spent the last five years living in the forest with his father.
"He didn't look at all like a vagrant — he didn't smell, he was clean, his clothes were clean but he simply didn't know anything about who he was," one city employee tells the Telegraph, explaining that she was called in to help because she speaks English. "He had only a few words of German but was completely fluent in English, and said that his father had told him it was an important language."
Speaking later to police, Ray said he and his father spent "at least five years" in the woods after his mother died in a car crash. Details remain hazy, but they reportedly lived in a tent and were cut off from civilization. Ray's father recently died from a fall, Ray told police, so he buried him and headed for Berlin, per his dad's instructions. "He seemed calm, not scared at all, but quiet," the city worker adds. "He said he had been told to go to Berlin if he ever needed help and had taken several weeks to walk here."
Ray's ability to communicate bodes well for his reintegration, but there will be hurdles — as London's Daily Mail reports, he's "having difficulty sleeping in a proper bed," and finds soap and running water "unsettling." He also "looked completely puzzled" by the concept of a passport, although he said his father had taught him to read. He's now in a youth shelter while the Berlin police and Interpol try to identify him, and a police spokesman tells the Telegraph he'll likely be assigned a legal guardian.
As Gawker points out, Ray could just be a "desperate runaway" pulling a hoax. If his story is true, though, it would join a long, tragic history of children excluded from human society. While Ray seems to have been partly socialized in his youth, and at least had his father for company, many feral children are deprived of virtually all human contact. Some have even famously been raised by animals, from Victor of Aveyron and Peter the Wild Boy to Ukraine's "dog girl" and Russia's "bird boy."
When MNN published a list of "9 children who were raised by animals" last year, it sparked a debate among readers over reintegrating feral children. Circumstances vary widely, but one reader cited two specific cases as "prime examples of why people should not be FORCED to leave the wild! Just because it doesn't work for you, doesn't mean they can't be happy there." Another reader countered that "none of these feral children HAD a choice. They were all abused, stolen, or lost too young to make a reasonable 'choice' between being feral or not, so it's not right to blame people for wanting to bring them back into human civilization. It's a story of perseverance of the human spirit, but it's a sadness that these children were forced to live this life."
Ray's case is unique since he lived with his father — it's unclear how much autonomy he had, or how detached from society he really was. But according to an unidentified city employee quoted in the Daily Mail, even though he's adjusting well at the youth shelter, "He has indicated that he would be far more comfortable on the forest floor and would prefer to return there to sleep."
For more about feral children, check out the video below from National Geographic (warning: the video contains footage that some readers may find disturbing):