If you were a kid growing up in the late '90s, then you probably heard the words "Hi, I'm Eliza Thornberry, part of your average family!" more times than you can count. That sentence kicked off every episode of "The Wild Thornberrys," a Nickelodeon cartoon about a family of nature documentarians that traveled around the world learning about different kinds of animals.
Back in its heyday, "The Wild Thornberrys" did a lot to teach kids about wildlife. Heck, even famed primatologist Jane Goodall appeared on the show one time to help Eliza save animals from poachers, so they must have been doing something right!
At the same time, the show was anything but realistic, and not just because of Eliza's magical powers or her parents' super cool RV. Nope, it was the family's two adopted members -- Donnie and Darwin -- that really tested the bonds of reality, and probably in ways you never actually noticed.
To find out just what weird misinformation "The Wild Thornberrys" accidentally implanted in our heads about feral children and chimpanzees, we spoke to two experts who work with the real life counterparts of Donnie and Darwin about how they'd basically be anything but average.
Donnie is a four-year-old feral child who is taken in by a group of orangutans as a toddler after his parents are killed by poachers. At the age of four, he's found by the Thornberrys and becomes a part of their family, despite his penchant for unintelligible babbling (as voiced by Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers), getting into good-natured trouble, and messing with Rugrats in the occasional crossover movie:
But according to Mary-Ann Ochota, a British anthropologist whose Animal Planet series "Raised Wild" explores the stories of real feral children, Donnie would have a much more difficult time connecting to the rest of the Thornberrys IRL -- and he definitely wouldn't be as fun.
"Most children who’ve survived wild probably wouldn’t babble away like Donnie does, making noise all the time," Ochota told MTV News over email. "They will have difficulty communicating and understanding what’s going on around them, so they may vocalize to express pain, or fear, or excitement, but often they’ve learned that keeping quiet is safer." So Donnie's trademark mouth noises only really make sense when he's excited or scared, and less so when he's just hanging out.
Real feral children also aren't as curious as Donnie is, Ochota said, especially when it comes to other humans. "Normally their overriding response is fear -- they don’t understand who these new people are or what they want, they simply know that they’re powerful and potentially dangerous. Like any of us, they try to either run away, fight or hide. Curiosity only comes later -- when a child (or animal) feels safe enough to be brave."
But like Donnie, feral children might appear to be more curious in a habitat they understand, like the forest or jungle -- but that's more a survival strategy than anything else. "If I lived wild in a forest for years I’d get pretty good at climbing trees and finding my way around in low light – otherwise I’d probably have died," Ochota said.
And there is some good news for Donnie's future, just so we don't entirely ruin your childhood: Donnie experienced a loving family environment for a few years as a toddler, which is critical for developing attachment and language skills. He was also only in the wild for a short period of time, so he'd have a much better chance than most feral children of being rehabilitated -- although the Thornberrys probably could be devoting more time and energy to helping Donnie than they do in the show.
"Stability, lots and lots of time and specialist support are key to any kind of long-term and intensive rehabilitation of a traumatized child. It’s not easy, it’s not quick, and there may be some issues that will never be fully overcome," Ochota said. "I would guess the Wild Thornberrys' lifestyle is a bit chaotic, which might make it difficult to help a child like Donnie understand what’s happening and feel safe. A bit more structure might calm him down a bit!"
"That said, he does seems pretty happy, so they must be doing something right!" she added. Phew.
But really, the strangest part of the Wild Thornberrys family is actually Darwin, an orphaned chimpanzee that the Thornberrys take in and whom only Eliza can understand. He hates the danger of the wilderness and would rather stay indoors where it's safe and comfortable.
Of course, talking animals aren't exactly common, and everyone knows that a chimp like Darwin could never exist in real life -- but Shawn Sweeney, the director of Community Engagement at the Jane Goodall Institute, says that his depiction speaks to a larger problem with the way chimpanzees are represented in pop culture. A real life team of nature-lovers in the Thornberrys' situation, he says, would be incredibly irresponsible if they tried to raise Darwin on their own.
"We have this idea of chimps kind of being like dogs or cats, [but] there's a big difference between domesticated animals like dogs and cats and chimps," Sweeney clarified. "Chimps are wild animals. Dogs and cats have been bred over eons to have certain behaviors and chimps are not in that category."
That's where you get the stereotype of chimpanzees being cute and cuddly until they reach a certain age, he told us -- it's not that the chimp is "going berserk," it's that they're following their true nature that's been there all along. "People have this idea that they are sort of one type of animal when they are babies and then when they are adults they become vicious monsters, and the reality is that they are one species that belong in the wild. That is what they are built from, that is the environment that they’ve evolved to be in."
So what should the Thornberrys have actually done when they first came across Darwin in the Congo? First of all, they definitely shouldn't have gotten within 30 meters of the little guy, because chimpanzees are capable of contracting diseases from humans and nobody wants that.
Then they should have contacted local law enforcement in the region, who work closely with the Jane Goodall Institute's chimpanzee sanctuary in the Republic of the Congo (which is the largest of its kind in all of Africa) to rescue abandoned and captive chimps in the region. After being briefly quarantined to make sure he didn't pick up any of those human diseases, Darwin would be introduced to "housing, healthcare, food, shelter," and other orphan chimpanzees to become friends with. It's a far cry away from his cozy life eating cheese curls in the Thornberrys' RV, but it's also much better for him in the long-run.
Oh, and giving a chimpanzee an adorable name like "Darwin?" Sweeney's surprisingly pretty much all about that -- in fact, it was Jane Goodall who first pioneered the practice of assigning names to wild animals. Prior to her scientific research, primatologists differentiated their subjects with numbers so as to distance themselves from the chimp's more human-seeming behaviors.
"Jane fought really hard to help people understand how like us they are and how it would be hard to characterize their behavior in any other way," Sweeney told us -- which is exactly why it's so important that we protect the small chimp population we have.
But don't worry, Sweeney doesn't think "The Wild Thornberrys" did chimpanzees a disservice by depicting Darwin the way that they did -- just that we as viewers shouldn't allow him to confuse our understanding of how "trained" chimps are exploited in live-action settings.
"One way you could interpret the Darwin character [is] as being a wild chimp that has his choice of being with the family or not, and he’s just sort of choosing to be with them," he said. "But when it comes to other entertainment chimps in our world, they’re not given that choice."