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Abandoned as a child, Marcos Rodríguez Pantoja survived alone in the wild for 15 years. But living with people proved to be even more difficult.
The first time Marcos Rodríguez Pantoja ever heard voices on the radio, he panicked. “Fuck,” he remembers thinking, “those people have been inside there a long time!” It was 1966, and Rodríguez woke from a nap to the sound of voices. There was nobody else in the room, but the sounds of a conversation were coming from a small wooden box. Rodríguez got out of bed and crept towards the device. When he got closer, he couldn’t see a door, a hatch, or even a small crack in the box’s surface. Nothing. The people were trapped.
Rodríguez had a plan. “Don’t worry, if you all move to one side, I’ll get you out of there,” he yelled at the radio. He ran towards the wall at the other end of the room, the device in his hand. There, breathless and red in the face, he held it high above his head and brought it down hard against the brick wall, in one violent swing. The wood splintered, the speaker popped out of its casing, and the voices fell silent. Rodríguez dropped the radio on to the floor.
When he knelt down to search through the debris, the people weren’t there. He called for them, but they didn’t respond. He searched more frantically, but they still didn’t appear. “I’ve killed them!” Rodríguez bellowed, and ran to his bed, where he hid for the rest of the day.
Rodríguez was in his early 20s. He did not have any learning disabilities. Indeed, there was nothing to suggest his intelligence was below average. But he was ignorant of the most basic technology because, between the ages of seven and 19, according to his own testimony, Rodríguez lived alone, far from civilisation, in the Sierra Morena, a deserted mountain range of jagged peaks that stretches across southern Spain.
His story is that he was abandoned as a child of seven, in 1953, and left to fend for himself. Alone in the wild, as he tells it, he was raised by wolves, who protected and sheltered him. With no one to talk to, he lost the use of language, and began to bark, chirp, screech and howl.
Twelve years later, police found him hiding in the mountains, wrapped in a deerskin and with long, matted hair. He tried to flee, but the officers caught him, tied his hands and brought him to the nearest village. Eventually a young priest brought him to the hospital ward of a convent in Madrid, where he stayed for a year and received a remedial education from the nuns.
It is almost impossible to imagine what it would be like to emerge into adulthood without any of the socialisation that the rest of us unconsciously absorb, via a million imperceptible cues and incidents, as children and teenagers. When he left the convent hospital, adjusting to life among humans brought with it a series of shocks. When he first went to the cinema – to see a Western – he ran out of the theatre because he was terrified of the cowboys galloping toward the camera. The first time he ate in a restaurant, he was surprised he had to pay for his food. One day he went into a church, where an acquaintance had told him God lived. He approached the priest at the altar. “They tell me you’re God,” he said. “They tell me you know everything.”
In the 50 years since he was found in the wilderness, Rodríguez has struggled to get a handle on society’s expectations. He lived in convents, abandoned buildings and hostels all over Spain. He worked odd jobs on construction sites, in bars, nightclubs and hotels; he was robbed and exploited: people took advantage of his unworldliness. Some people did try to help him, but most found him awkward and uncommunicative, and he was largely shunned by society. “For most of my life,” Rodríguez told me, “I had a very bad time among humans”.
Marcos Rodríguez still finds it hard to be human. He lives in Rante, a sleepy hamlet of 60 or so families in Galicia, in north-west Spain. He is retired, and spends his time walking in the countryside, at the bar – “where he likes to play the clown,” a waitress told me – or hunting wild boar with a friend. The rest of the time, he stays home, watching daytime TV for hours. Rodríguez moved here in the late 1990s, when he was taken in by a retired policeman, who brought him to Galicia and gave him a job doing farm work and a place to live. For the first time since he left the mountains, his life was quiet and peaceful. “The people keep an eye out for me here,” he told me. “They’re nice, better than those I met before.”
I met Rodríguez in his cramped, cold living room. The walls were plastered with photographs, old magazine pages and calendars of naked women. “I’m too much of a human now,” he said. “Before, when I first started living among people, I didn’t even have a bed – I slept on piles of newspapers.” The small, ordinary house was given to him six years ago by one of his friends in the village. There were dirty plates in the kitchen sink, a half-made bed, wooden cupboards, a desk and a TV.
Talking with Rodríguez is somewhat uncanny. Nothing about his appearance suggests an unusual past: he looks like a typical Spanish septuagenarian, thin, with salt-and-pepper hair and ruddy cheeks. A cigarette habitually protrudes from his thin lips. But within moments of meeting him, I could sense something different in his demeanour.
He found it difficult to look me in the eye, and stared intensely at the ground whenever he spoke. He would make a joke, and laugh at himself, only to lose his confidence almost immediately and retreat behind a sheepish, diffident grin. He was friendly and talkative, but he seemed overly conscious of my reaction to everything he said: if I looked confused, he was visibly discouraged; if I was enthusiastic, he was suddenly excited and energetic. He always seemed to be anticipating his interlocutor’s scorn.
In his company, you cannot help realising that our daily interactions are eased by a stream of invisible signals – a kind of silent language we all understand, which you don’t even notice until it’s absent. “Marcos can first seem unknowable, and difficult to help,” Xosé Santos, one of his friends in the village, had told me. “But once he gets to know you, and you him, he is a very loyal person.”
Rodríguez drew a lighter towards his cigarette and struck. “I’m still amazed by these things,” he chuckled, pointing at a large collection of lighters on a nearby shelf. “If you only knew the lengths I went to to make fire back then.” On the desk behind him is a pile of cuttings from Spanish newspapers, with headlines such as “The Wolfman of the Sierra Morena” and “Living Among Wolves” – mementoes of a bewildering new period in his life.
In 2010, the Spanish director Gerardo Olivares released a film, Entrelobos (“Among Wolves”), based on Rodríguez’s life in the mountains. After reading his story in a book by Gabriel Janer Manila – a Spanish anthropologist who wrote a PhD thesis based on extensive interviews he conducted with Rodríguez in the 1970s – Olivares hired a private detective to track down Rodríguez. “I did not have much hope of finding him,” Olivares told me. “Manila told me he was dead.”
The movie, which was a modest hit in Spain, was a heavily romanticised depiction of Rodríguez’s coexistence with nature, with the story told through the eyes of the “wolf child”. “Some details were missing, but I do like it,” Rodríguez told me. “I watch it all the time, especially when I’m sad or can’t get to sleep.” (Olivares went on to make a documentary about Rodríguez, called Marcos, el Lobo Solitario.)
Suddenly, to his shock and dismay, Rodríguez became a celebrity: Spanish TV declared him the “son of wolves”; the BBC dubbed him “the wolf man”. Spanish papers seemed to write about him every other month. At first he was pleased with the attention: after years of rejection and disbelief, his story was being told, and he was finally being accepted. But soon, people wanted more of him than he could give. Journalists were lined up outside his door, and the press wanted to find out everything about his life. Fans wrote him from Germany, America and all over Spain. He was the famous wolf man of the Sierra Morena.
What Rodríguez remembers of his time living wild is that it was “glorious”. When he was found by the police and brought down from the mountains, an untroubled, simple adolescence among animals and birds was cruelly cut short. He had always found it hard to relate to humans, who were baffled by his ignorance and infuriated by his inability to communicate. But now the intensity of their belated fascination was almost as puzzling as their earlier contempt – Rodríguez could never understand what was expected of him.
Rodríguez speaks in a high pitch, oscillating between seriousness and frivolity; a sober tone can turn quickly into a raucous laugh. But he is quiet and solemn when he tries to explain how he suffered at the hands of humans after he returned to society: “I was constantly humiliated. Among people, I learned to hate and to be embarrassed.”
No one believed his story; they merely took him for an idiot or a drunkard. He wanted to be liked, to be normal, to have a wife and children. He wanted everything he seemed utterly incapable of having. But when Rodríguez thinks about what has hurt him most in life, what he returns to aren’t these everyday humiliations, but one earlier betrayal: when his father sold him into slavery.
Rodríguez was born on 8 June 1946 in a squat, whitewashed house in the village of Añora in Andalusia. His parents, Melchor and Araceli, had two other boys. The rural economy had collapsed after the civil war, and life was harsh. “The family were poor, and they left for Madrid, in search of work,” Anastasia Sanchez, Rodríguez’s cousin, told me.
In the capital, Melchor found work in a brick factory, but soon after the family arrived, his wife died. According to Sanchez, Melchor couldn’t cope on his own. He soon met another woman and sent one of his sons to live with his family in Barcelona, and left another with relatives in Madrid. (Juan, the only surviving brother, did not respond to requests for an interview).
Melchor kept Marcos with him, and together the new family returned to the south, to Cardeña – about 50km east of his birthplace. Melchor took a job making charcoal. Rodríguez, at the age of four, took care of the family’s pigs. He would be sent to steal acorns from the landowner’s estate to feed them. “If I didn’t bring enough home, my stepmother wouldn’t give me any dinner,” he told me. She beat him often.
Then, one day – Rodríguez thinks he was about six – a man arrived on a chestnut horse. The man spoke briefly with Melchor, and then took the child home with him. Rodríguez had never been in such a big house. In a sprawling kitchen, he was fed a thick, meaty stew. The man told him his father had sold him. From now on, the rich man said, the boy would work for him, tending his herd of 300 goats. “And that was it,” Rodríguez told me. “I never found out how much my Dad was paid.”
Julian Pitt-Rivers, a British anthropologist who published a classic study of a traditional Andalusian community in the early 1950s, wrote that it was common in the rural south for children from impoverished families to be sent to the mountains to look after sheep and goats in exchange for money. “There were lots of young boys working and sleeping on the hillside back then,” Juan Madrid, a civil servant in Añora who has researched Rodríguez’s case, told me. “But that his father sold him – I’m not sure that was so common.”
The next morning the man took him on horseback into the mountains, to a small cave deep in the Sierra Morena, a sparsely populated mountain range full of wolves and wild boars. There, Rodríguez was handed over to the care of an elderly shepherd. He slept outside, and at first was frightened by the animal noises. The taciturn old shepherd gave him goat’s milk to drink, and taught him how to trap hares and light fires.
But one day not long after Rodríguez arrived, the old shepherd said he was going off to shoot a rabbit and never returned. Nobody came to replace him. The landlord appeared from time to time to check on the goats, but Rodríguez hid from him. He didn’t want to be taken back to his family home, where he had suffered years of beatings. “Even in my worst moments, I preferred the mountains to the thought of home.”
In the following weeks, the young boy tried to suck milk from the goats. He tried to catch pheasants and fish for trout, but had little success. So, instead, he started following the lead of the animals. He watched how wild boars dug for tubers and how the birds picked berries from bushes. With the basic knowledge he had learned from the shepherd, he improvised traps for rabbits and noticed that when he gutted them in the river, their blood attracted the fish. When he got older – Rodríguez couldn’t remember how old – he also learned how to hunt and skin deer.
He told me he was still a child, only six or seven, the first time he encountered wolves. He was looking for shelter from a storm when he stumbled across a den. Not knowing any better, he entered the cave and fell asleep with the pups. The she-wolf had been out hunting, and when she returned with food, she growled and snarled at the boy. He thought the wolf was going to attack him, he says, but she let him take a piece of the meat instead.
Wolves are not the only animals he lived among: he says he made friends with foxes and snakes, and that his enemy was the wild boar. He says he spoke to them all in a mix of grunts, howls and half-remembered words: “I couldn’t tell you what language it was, but I did speak.”
Rodríguez told me this with absolute confidence, as if nothing could have been truer. The fact that I might find it implausible didn’t seem to worry him; it was the one moment when he showed absolutely no concern for my reaction. There was no blushing, no adolescent timidity or raucous, incoherent humour. Indeed, if there was one thing Rodríguez seemed to know for sure – no matter what other people thought – it was that he had lived a better and happier life in the wild. The complexity of his interactions with humans would later grate against the remembered simplicity of his dealings with the animals. “When a person talks, they might say one thing but mean another. Animals don’t do that,” Rodríguez told me.
In early 1965, a park ranger reported to the police that he had seen a man with long hair, dressed in a deerskin, roaming the Sierra Morena. Three mounted officers were sent to search for him. Rodríguez says they found him eating fruit under the shade of a tree deep inside the Sierra. He remembers the men dismounted their horses and tried to talk to him, but Rodríguez didn’t know how to respond. He understood their questions, but he hadn’t spoken in 12 years, and no words came. He ran.
The officers caught up with Rodríguez easily. They tied his hands to the saddle of one of their horses and dragged him off the mountain; Rodríguez told me howled as he left the hillside.
First, the officers took him to a nearby town, Fuencaliente, and brought him to a barbershop. “I was sitting in the chair, and I remember looking in the mirror and wondering who was staring back at me.” When the barber took out a razor and began to sharpen it, Rodríguez lunged at him. “I thought it was either him or me,” he recalled. The two officers had to restrain him.
Then, Rodríguez remembers, he was taken to the local jail in Cardeña, about 20km away, while the officers searched for his father. But when they eventually tracked Melchor down, they did not charge him for selling his own son into slavery – they merely asked if he wanted the boy back.
Instead of welcoming his son with open arms, his father was indifferent. (In fact, Rodríguez recalls, his father berated him for losing a jacket he had been given as a child.) When the police saw that Melchor had no interest in him, they simply left him in the main square of Cardeña. Two shepherds known locally as the “widowers” took him in, and put him to work tending their sheep. Just a few days after his capture, Rodríguez was back in the mountains, looking after animals again.
In the spring of 1966, the shepherds Rodríguez was working for moved their flock near the village of Lopera, where there was good grazing. The son of the local doctor, a curate named Juan Luis Galvez, encountered Rodríguez, scared and still unable to speak. It was a year since he had been discovered in the mountains, but he had still hardly spent any time with humans.
Galvez told Gabriel Janer Manila, the anthropologist, that he was at first utterly “unadapted to social norms”, seemingly immune to the cold, and walked with the hunched, bow-legged gait of a monkey. Galvez moved the young man into his family home in Lopera, where he taught him how to dress himself, how to eat correctly, and how to pronounce words. He even arranged football matches so Rodríguez could play with other local children. But Rodríguez resisted. “I would try to run back to the mountains whenever I could,” he told me. “I didn’t feel comfortable among humans.”
When Janer visited the area a decade later to confirm the details of Rodríguez’s stories, he found “a powerful reluctance to talk about this period”, and particularly the circumstances of his abandonment and capture – a sign of shame about the misery and poverty that haunted the region in the years after the civil war. These socioeconomic conditions, Janer wrote, were essential to understanding the trauma of Rodríguez’s early life.
Joaquin Pana, a priest in Lopera, told Janer that the young Rodríguez “had been treated very badly by people”, and seemed to be surprised by everything, whether it was a glass of wine, a cigarette, or a broom: “He had the mind of a very, very young child.” A local woman called Maria Antonia Cerillo Uceda remembered Rodríguez as “very scruffy and wild”, but also “clever and curious”.
At the end of the summer of 1966, Galvez, the curate, sent Rodríguez to the Hospital de Convalecientes in Madrid, a convent infirmary on Meléndez Valdés Street in the north of the city. There, doctors cut the calluses from Rodríguez’s feet and placed a board on his back so that he would stand straight, and the nuns carried on his language lessons.
Rodríguez was perfectly capable of understanding language; the problem was simply that he hadn’t spoken for so long that he had lost the ability to pronounce words. “I talked before they captured me, and even in the mountains, I spoke to myself,” he told me. But he never seemed to catch up, even after many years in the world. “I always felt I never had knowledge of anything that mattered to people,” Rodríguez told me. “The only thing I knew was my life in the mountains, and nobody believed me.”
‘You know, the first time I saw the sea, I was travelling to Mallorca on a ferry from Barcelona,” Rodríguez told me one evening over dinner. “I was so confused by the never-ending water that I went to one of the sailors and asked him why there was so much water surrounding the boat. The sailor turned to me and smiled; he must have known I was different. ‘We tied the water to the boat,’ the man said to me, pointing to one of the ropes hanging off the gunwale.” Rodríguez cackled, shook his head, and took a swig of his wine. “Poor nuns,” he said, “they tried their best, but they didn’t prepare me much for the real world.”
While Rodríguez stayed at the convent, he worked on construction sites in and around Madrid. The nuns had hoped this would prepare him for society, but it didn’t help much. “I never had any idea what I was supposed to do,” he told me. At the beginning of 1967, Rodríguez was sent to do military service in Córdoba. He didn’t last long. He fired his gun during a training drill and almost killed a member of his platoon. He was discharged, and returned to the hospital in Madrid. On his return, he met a fellow patient who convinced him to go to the island of Mallorca – which was then turning into a tourist destination for people from all over Europe. There would be lots of work, the man told Rodríguez, and he could finally have some independence.
As soon as they arrived on the island, his travelling companion stole his suitcase and the little money the nuns had given him, and left him stranded in a hostel. The owners, who thought Rodríguez was pulling a scam, called the police. “Luckily the nuns had called ahead to warn the local constabulary of my arrival,” he told me. Instead of being arrested, he was put to work to pay off his debts.
In the following years, he held jobs as an assistant chef, a barman, a bricklayer and a road-sweeper. Because he didn’t understand money very well, his bosses often underpaid him and took advantage of his naivety. “For a while, I was selling marijuana, without knowing. My boss told me it was stomach medicine. People would come to the bar and ask for ‘medicine’, and I’d give it to them.”
Juan Font, who worked with Rodríguez on building sites on the island in the 1970s, remembers him as mischievous and funny, but easily exploited. “He was a good person and a hard worker, who we all respected,” he told me over the phone from Mallorca. “I remember he loved to sing; he had a great voice. But it was hard to believe his stories of living in the mountains; they just seemed so unreal.”
It was in Mallorca, in 1975, that Rodríguez was introduced to Gabriel Janer Manila, the anthropologist who would go on to produce the most significant study of his life in the wild and its effect on his subsequent development.
“Here was this fragile-looking, childish man who was telling me the most incredible tales,” Janer told me on the phone. “I admit, I struggled to believe him.” But the more Janer heard of Rodríguez’s story, the more credible it seemed. The pair met almost every day for six months. “I noticed that his story never varied, the facts never changed, no matter how many times I asked him to tell it, no matter how many times I asked him to clarify something,” Janer wrote in his PhD thesis.
After subjecting Rodríguez to a series of intelligence tests, Janer determined that Rodríguez had no learning disabilities. Instead, he concluded, his emotional and social development had remained frozen at the moment in his childhood when he was abandoned. Rather than learning the rules of human interaction, Janer wrote, he idealised life among the animals. “Even now,” he concluded, “Marcos tries to apply to social life the rules he observed during his life in the mountains.”
Of course, the question remains: did Rodríguez really communicate with the animals in the way he remembers it? Certainly, the idea has fired the imagination of fiction writers. But for scientists, the question of whether animals would ever allow a human to live among them, as one of their own, is still the subject of fierce debate.
When a small child was discovered in a forest near Kampala in Uganda in 1991, the woman who found him described an emaciated boy, covered in hair and missing a big toe. When she tried to touch him, he screamed like a banshee. At first, the boy, who was given the name John Ssebunya, didn’t speak much, but with the care of his adoptive family, he regained parts of his speech and was able to tell people what had happened to him. Ssebunya claimed that monkeys had raised him – that they brought him food and containers of water made of giant leaves, and that he played hide-and-seek with their young.
Douglas K Capland, a primatologist and psychologist who studied Ssebunya’s case, believed that the boy lived alongside monkeys, but not among them. The monkeys, Capland concluded, had foraged more food than they needed, and John had picked up what they left behind.
José España, a biologist and specialist in wolf behaviour, who knows Rodríguez, believes his experience was probably comparable. “It’s very possible for humans and wolves to co-exist,” Espana told me. “But do I believe that every time he called the wolves they came to him, as he says? Well, that’s more debatable.” Certainly, the wolves would have come to Rodríguez when he had food. “Marcos is what I would call a periphery wolf – tolerated by the alpha, and by the rest of the pack because he posed no threat,” España said. “How he chose to interpret these interactions, however, is most likely a case of selective memory.”
Janer says the young boy would have projected his social needs on to the animals and imagined relationships with them. “When Pantoja says the fox laughed at him, or that he had to tell off the snake, he gives us a version of the true reality, what he believes happened – or how, at least, he explained the reality to himself,” Janer told me. “Marcos’s mind was desperate for social acceptance,” he told me, “so instead of understanding the animals’ presence as incentivised by the food, he thought they were trying to make friends.”
Rodríguez left Mallorca in the 80s and moved to the south of Spain, where he worked in a series of jobs – “anything that didn’t involve reading or writing,” he said. He was at his local bar almost every day, getting drunk and playing the fruit machine. “This was the time that Marcos’s life passed in a blur of alcohol and odd jobs,” Gerardo Olivares told me. Rodríguez finds it hard to recall much of those years – except the day he met the man he calls “my boss”.
In 1998, a retired policeman from Galicia, Manuel Barandela, was visiting his son in the town of Fuengirola, near Malaga, when he spotted Rodríguez living in the basement of an abandoned building. They talked over lunch, and Rodríguez gave him Janer’s book to read. After struggling through his story with the help of a Catalan dictionary, Barandela decided to take him back to Rante, where he could offer him a home and give him work on his homestead.
In Rante, Rodríguez found quiet and solitude for the first time since his capture. Barandela tried to teach him to read, so that he could at least use the phone and recognise the names of medicines, but it proved almost impossible. Barandela found it hard to talk to him, and began to worry it had been a mistake to take him in. “In the end, I came to see Marcos as a child,” he recalled in a Spanish interview in 2010, shortly before he died. “Understanding him this way made everything easier.”
Of course, it is as a “child” that Rodríguez has now become an object of fascination. For centuries, writers and thinkers have been obsessed by the stories of “feral children” who grow up without human contact, supposedly untouched by civilisation – and therefore taken to represent human nature in its purest form, innocent of society’s conditioning.
Victor of Aveyron, perhaps the most celebrated feral child of modern times, emerged from a forest in southern France in 1800, aged 12, after about seven years living in the wild. This was a moment of social and philosophical ferment, when ideas about the “state of nature” put forth by the likes of Locke and Rousseau were still being hotly debated. Victor, who was unable to speak, was hailed throughout the country as a potential window on to man’s soul, and intently studied by learned men keen to test their theories of language and education.
It may be no accident that Rodríguez’s case was, for half a century, rather less celebrated: he emerged from the mountains into a country scared to investigate itself for fear of what it might find. There was little appetite for reopening debates about poverty and neglect, or the sale of children into labour, even in the 1970s. It was not until much later, 35 years after Franco had died, in a democracy mature enough to confront its past, that the details and significance of his story were finally embraced.
The release of Entrelobos, and the sudden flood of interest in the circumstances of Rodríguez’s abandonment, brought back to life a forgotten Spain, cut off from the world, struggling to survive on scarce resources under a repressive dictatorship. Rodríguez told Olivares that he had given him back his dignity. The innocence and naivete that had made him an outcast his whole life were now the subject of intense interest.
But this was yet another complication: it seemed as if people thought their attention could compensate for all his suffering. People wrote to him from all over the world: some wanted to understand him, some wanted his advice, and some said they wanted to take care of him. Schools asked him to visit to tell his story to their pupils. His phone filled up with messages from journalists wanting a more intimate account of his life. “There was a queue outside as long as the one at a benefits office,” Rodríguez said, slumped in the chair in his small living room.
“People still come round all the time. Some of them think I’m rich and try to exploit me. I don’t have a penny!” Rodríguez told me. He remembered one occasion, a few years back, when a woman visited his house and declared her love for him. “She offered herself to me and said that we should go into business together. I suppose she thought I made loads of money from the film!”