Home is where the heart is. Home is where your loved ones are. Home is where you grew up. What really is home anyway?
I have often wondered about the concept of "home". My home has changed several times over my lifetime. My hometown is Wilmington, Ohio although that is not where I call home today. The two houses (next door and on the same street) where I grew up would have, each of them, at one time been called my home. Going "home" then changed from the location where my childhood occurred to where my coming of age occurred - at Ohio State University and in the city of Columbus, Ohio. Coming home meant arriving at my dorm and then my apartment, greeted by my dogs, Aviendha and Rahvin. For several years, this is where my home was. Since 2000, home has been in Amherst, New York with my husband and an ever-changing non-human cast of characters that have, at various times, included dogs, cats, ferrets, rats, boa constrictors, hedgehogs, and leopard geckos.
Since the location of my home has changed within my lifetime, I pondered if home is more of a concept than a geographic location. As my thoughts wandered through this idea, I realized that my definition of home is the place where you most want to be and where you feel safest among the individuals you love the most. While my current home is located at a house in Amherst, NY, it is my home because of what it means to me: love, friendship and safety.
There is a natural extension of home when one speaks of "feeling at home" with an individual, in a location or as a result of an experience. When I am with friends I feel at home. When I am in nature I often feel at home. Although these mimic the actual home, they do not replicate it in all its complexity and richness.
Musing over this concept it also led me to ask if non-humans, especially those with whom we share our houses, apartments or other living quarters, feel the same way about "home." Is home where they most want to be? If given the choice, would our non-human companions actually choose the living arrangements in which they are placed - often with no choice in the matter - and define such as "home?"
I can't answer that question, because humans have yet to create a reliable translation tool that allows our cats, dogs, and even our boa constrictors to explain to us in a language we speak and understand what home means to them. The best we can do is to pay attention to the choices they make when they get the opportunity to make them.
This choice presented itself to our cat Ares last weekend. Rick, Ares, the dogs (Zeus, Athena and Sherlock) were enjoying a relaxing, sun-soaked morning in our backyard. After an hour or so outside, we decided to put everyone back inside so we could go downtown (20 minutes from home) to the Allentown Art Festival. I went inside first with Zeus, refilling water bowls, etc and preparing the house for our departure. Rick followed a few minutes later. Within minutes we left the house, excited to see what work of art we would bring home this year.
After walking through Allentown for about an hour, viewing just over half the tents with available artwork, we decided to cool off with a cold one inside a local bar. Sitting at a window seat, we talked and watched the world go by. Then, it hit me. I never saw Ares before we left. Trying not to completely panic, I asked Rick if he brought Ares inside. He didn't. He thought I did. Not even finished with our drinks, we rushed to our car. Within legal limits, Rick quickly drove home. The entire 20 minutes my heart was pounding and I was trying to not freak out. Rick was doing his best to soothe my panic and rage with phrases like, "I'm sure he's there. He probably didn't go anywhere." His pleas fell on deaf ears. The only thing I could imagine was all the worst possible scenarios. I don't even need to list them - I'm sure you can imagine them yourself.
See...even though our yard is fenced, our neighbor's portion of the fence needs repair and he can slip through in several places. This is why he is only permitted to be outside with supervision. (see my previous blog: Questioning Your Own Beliefs, or Should Cats Be Allowed Outside?)
As we arrived home, I leapt from the car before my husband had even put the car in park. I had prepared myself for the worst...finding him suffering or even dead along the busy road just a block away from our house. After only a second that seemed like forever, I called his name, "Ares!!", my voice dripping with desperation. Just before I reached the fence across our driveway, I saw his head pop around the back of the house. In that moment I was filled with a kaleidoscope of emotion. He had cobwebs on his whiskers and appeared to have no injuries. He was safe. He was home. And in the end, that is what mattered.
Days later, we found out that he had visited our neighbors' back deck. He lounged on top of and below their table, enjoyed some water provided by them, and even had an adventure exploring underneath their deck. Then, after he had spent some time there he chose to come home. He returned to our backyard and jumped on top of our hot tub and napped until we returned - nearly two hours later. He had chosen to come home.
Ares is not a cat to be taken lightly. He is named after the God of War for a reason. He is a hard individual who has clear boundaries about what he finds acceptable interaction. Not known to be an affectionate individual, he is often both within arm's reach physically and untouchable otherwise. He was also reportedly a stray before he came into my life, so he was potentially a street smart feline.
I believe strongly that Ares chose to come home because he loves his home and the individuals with whom he lives. He is provided everything he needs here - food, water, shelter, love and respect. He is never treated harshly or unfairly at home. His environment provides everything he could want, including options for supervised visits outside. I'm pretty sure that the environment he is provided along with the fair, consistent and loving way he is treated made it no choice at all to choose to come home to wait for Rick and I to return. I'm very thankful that our house is more than just a residence for Ares, it truly is his home.