Mowgli has always been one of the most-loved characters from children’s literature. I loved the Jungle Book cartoon movie when I was a kid and I must say it is a favorite even today. So when I heard about this real-life Mowgli character, I was fascinated.
Folklore and fairy-tales always mention that wild animals do not hurt the young ones of any species. But that theory hasn’t exactly been tested out in the real world, and there have been cases where babies were reportedly killed by man-eating lions or tigers. But that’s what makes Tippi Degre’s story that more special. Now 23 years old, Tippi is the only child of French wildlife photographer parents, Alain Degre and Sylvie Robert. Her parents’profession and their work in Africa made the young girl’s childhood unique, giving her the opportunity to interact with wild animals in incredible ways. She was named after actress Tippi Hedren, who is said to have kept fully-grown lions as pets in her home, and little Tippi was no different from her namesake, demonstrating early on the ability to form unusual bonds with the creatures of the wild.
According to Tippi’s mother Sylvia, “It was magical to be able to be free in this nature with this child. She was a very lucky little girl – she was born and raised until the age of 10 totally in the wild. It was just the three of us living in the wild with the animals and not too many humans. She was in the mindset of these animals. She believed the animals were her size and her friends. She was using her imagination to live in these different conditions.” Indeed she was, and it is so endearing to look at pictures of little Tippi with the animals. She doesn’t look very different from Mowgli with her unruly mop of hair, dressed in underwear, and sporting a slightly protruding belly. She looks completely at ease in the animal world. One of the cutest pictures is of her hugging a bullfrog like a normal 6-year-old might hug a teddy bear. It’s a different matter that she seems to have the frog in a death grip and the poor creature looks quite uncomfortable. In other pictures, Tippi can be seen sitting on elephants, kissing reptiles, standing on one foot on top of a crocodile, having her hand licked by a cheetah, and proudly tossing her head as she rides an ostrich. Her childhood friends were a rather motley crow – a leopard named J&B, an elephant, crocodiles, lion cubs, giraffes, meerkats, an ostrich, a mongoose, a cheetah, a snake, a zebra, a few chameleons and some giant bullfrogs.
It’s very surprising that animals otherwise considered extremely dangerous were able to accept little Tippi and include her as one of their own. Her parents say they used to be very gentle with her always making sure they didn’t hurt her. Especially Linda the ostrich, who was supposedly so afraid of hurting the girl that Tippi’s parents rarely got a chance to capture them riding together. Linda wouldn’t move at all with Tippi sitting on her, afraid she might cause the child to fall. About her daughter’s relationship with Abu the elephant, mother Sylvie says: “She had no fear. She did not realize she was not the same size as Abu. She would look into his eyes and speak to him.” But it’s not just the animals that Tippi got along with so well. Growing up among the native tribes people of Namibia, she was taken under their wing and taught all sorts of survival techniques of the wild. She could speak their language, hunt and knew how to feed herself with roots and berries.
Tippi lived in the wild for the first 10 years of her life, after which her parents took her back to their home country, France. She was sent to a French state school, and was a local celebrity. But things did not go very well for her in the city; she did not take too well to civilized life, as her parents had hoped. School was difficult since she had almost nothing in common with the other children in Paris. She went to school for only two years, after which her parents took to homeschooling her. But her upbringing ensured that she has remained a unique human being for life. The 23-year old went on to study cinema, supervised the well-being and treatment of tigers for a popular international game show in France, and wrote a book called Tippi of Africa, which became a bestseller. Very little is known about her life today. Last we heard she wanted to get a Namibian passport because she always believed she was African. Rumor has it she may have gone back to Africa to resume her friendship with the wild.
Tippi’s story and her pictures are so profound that you’d want to keep looking at them forever . Who wouldn’t want to have had such an amazing childhood?
Photos © Alain Degre and Sylvie Robert