Cabbage - lost and found
Tech and the search for our beloved family dog
On Friday, our family suffered a terrible shock - our beloved collie cross Cabbage was stolen along with five other dogs when someone drove off in our dog walker’s van.
Now, I know a story about a lost dog might seem a bit tangential to the purpose of this newsletter but bear with me. My book Always On is about the radical changes to our lives brought about by the smartphone and powerful social networks - and both played a part in the happy ending to the story of the stolen dogs.
On Friday morning I was at the home of a distinguished director from the golden age of TV drama, interviewing him for a future project, when my phone rang. It was my wife telling me that she had just been called by our dog walker with some shocking news. After collecting Cabbage and five other dogs he had stopped off near the park at a relative’s house to see if they wanted to go on the walk - but had left his van’s engine running with the key in the ignition. He turned round to see it disappearing into the distance.
I cut short my interview and rushed out to drive home. Then I stopped - and realised that time was of the essence and I must first sound the alert. So I did what I’ve done for the last 14 years and composed a tweet:
By the time I got home half an hour later, the tweet had gone viral. I added more information - the time and location in Acton where the van had been stolen, the fact that there were five other dogs involved, not just Cabbage.
That first tweet ended up getting retweeted over 10,000 times and seen by 3.6 million people, and subsequent ones also got huge numbers of retweets. I put appeals out on Facebook and Instagram too and various dog safety groups joined in, some producing posters with pictures of the dogs.
Cabbage became a trending topic and my first contact with a journalist from a national newspaper came within the hour.
I spoke to anyone who was interested - anything to spread the word. I got a message to my friend Adrian Chiles and he mentioned the story at the end of his BBC Radio 5 Live programme just before 1pm. But still we heard nothing about the whereabouts of our precious dog which came to us from a rescue home in 2007, aged 1, having apparently had a hard start in life.
People warned us against getting a collie - too energetic, too skittish, needing three walks a day, “she’ll wear you out.” Not having been brought up with dogs, I too was a little apprehensive but it was not long before Cabbage became a much loved member of the family.
Her energy turned out to be a spur to me to fight the middle-aged flab - I went running with her on a three mile route around a nearby park at least a couple of times a week. For years, she was hard to keep up with and there were scary moments - once on a dark evening, she was spooked by a firework and shot out of the park and across a busy road.
But over the years we have both slowed down. Since being diagnosed with Parkinson’s nearly three years ago, I have given up running and amble around the park. Cabbage, whose eyesight and hearing have both faded, sets an even more stately pace and sometimes looks askance at me as if to say “really - you want to go further?”
But in March 2020 as the pandemic arrived and we went into the first lockdown my early morning walk with the dog - my only permitted exercise - became a highlight of my day. I decided that each morning I would take a picture and post it on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.
Soon, some friends were complaining - “enough of your bloody dog” - but others said they really valued it. One British journalist based in Hong Kong told me it was a daily reminder of home. So for 18 months, nearly every day in fair weather and foul, Cabbage has made an appearance on social media.
But as I sat at home waiting for news I wondered whether there would be another morning walk.
At 2.30pm there was a knock at the door, and I opened it to find a young reporter from the Daily Telegraph, India McTaggart. In normal circumstances an unannounced visit from a journalist might be unwelcome - as I myself have found out on several doorsteps - but I rather admired her old fashioned ‘just go and knock on a few doors’ approach and invited her in.
There did not seem much to tell her but I put her in touch with the dog walker Brett Holte-Smith who was driving around with the owner of another of the dogs seeing if they could spot something. It sounded a pretty desperate attempt to find a needle in a haystack but India was keen to join them on their mission so they drove past my house to pick her up.
By now it was late afternoon and my wife Diane and I were feeling pretty gloomy, desperately worried about what was happening to Cabbage in the hands of malevolent strangers. If they were dog thieves rather than just opportunists grabbing a relatively modern van they would quickly realise that a 15 year old crossbreed was worth nothing to them - and what would they do then?
Then there was at last something which seemed to offer hope. The press office at Ford UK called me to explain that they needed to be put in touch with Brett. They explained that his Transit Van, like all. recent Fords, had a feature which allowed owners to track their vehicles via a smartphone app.
It turned out that Brett had once had this app but had forgotten his password. But he got a new one and quickly found that he was being given a location for the van - or at least where it had been at 1020 in the morning.
It was in Park Royal, one of London’s few industrial areas and pretty close to where the van had been stolen. Just as I was about to talk to Radio 4’s PM and then go on the ITV London regional news programme I got a text from India telling me they were heading to the place pinpointed by the app and were just ten minutes away.
“Be careful”, I texted back. I realised I could be on air just as they found the dogs - or came face to face with whoever had stolen the van. I told them to call Diane if anything happened and switched my phone off.
But twenty minutes later, my broadcasts done, nothing had been heard from Brett or India. We sat growing increasingly nervous - then eventually called. The news was disappointing, they had found no sign of the van at the pinpointed location and had drawn a blank when they scoured nearby streets. It looked as though the app might have shown where the van was at 1020 but not now - we speculated that somehow the thieves had managed to disable the tracking. Gloom descended again.
Then, a little after 6.30pm everything happened very fast. Both the people at Ford and Brett suddenly picked up from the app a new location in Park Royal for the van. The chase seemed to be on. Then Diane’s phone rang. It was a man in the Park Royal area explaining that he’d come across four dogs on the street. One of them had a nametag with Diane’s mobile number on it.
We rushed out to drive the short distance to the address he had given us just the other side of the Hanger Lane roundabout. The Friday night traffic was gridlocked and it took us half an hour to get to Huxley Gardens. We had directed Brett to the location, and the four dogs were already in the back of the other owner’s car, Cabbage looking weary but unharmed.
We gave her a big hug and posed for a picture taken by India McTaggart.
As we drove home, Brett had quickly found a fifth dog, a Labrador. His van had also been found in Wesley Avenue, about a mile and a half away from the dogs. But there was no sign of Bafi, the cockapoo.
We got home, and Cabbage ate two sausages and drank about a gallon of water. My tweet announcing her homecoming provoked a tidal wave of relief and ‘likes’.
All of our joy was tempered by concern about the fate of Bafi. We learned that the cockapoo, almost certainly the most valuable dog in the van, had been sitting in. the passenger seat when Brett had got out. Perhaps he was the target for the robbery?
But then around 10pm good news came through. Bafi had been found safe and well in Putney, across the river and a long way from the other dogs. The suspicion must be that he was taken away with the intention of selling him but, as some social media posts suggested, the online hullabaloo made him “too hot to handle” and his captors let him go.
So is this a tale of smartphone and social media technology helping to bring these lovely pets home to their owners? Well, imagine this had happened twenty years ago - getting the word out would have been a much slower process involving sticking “missing” posters on every lamppost. There would have been no mobile sim implanted in the van’s electronics system and no smartphone app to track it with. And maybe without the noise generated on social and then traditional media, whoever drove that van away would not have felt the pressure to release those dogs.
Then again, it was a member of the public who spotted the dogs wandering the streets and took the trouble to take a look at Cabbage’s collar and contact us rather than just walking on by. Whatever the technology, we always need community-minded people to help get us through difficult times - so if you are reading this, thank you Sebastian.
We are just so happy that we have our dear old dog back and that on Saturday the normal morning walk picture could be posted.
Now this is still - for the time being - a newsletter about Always On so you won’t be surprised that I’m going to end with a plug, especially as Cabbage is a character in the book, appearing on the very first page. Do buy it…
Always On is available as a hardback, ebook or audiobook here.
And if you want to support your local independent book shop you can order it at Hive.
Hi Rory - I am so pleased that Cabbage is back safe and sound where she belongs. I am actually getting in touch from the Press Office at Bath Cats and Dogs Home - we are a large RSPCA affiliated home in the SW. I wonder if you might be interested in supporting our latest appeal on your social media channels? You can just go to @BathCDH and retweet one of our many tweets about the appeal or do get in touch with me and I can tell you a little more. Sorry for leaving a comment here on your newsletter now you have left the BBC i wasn't sure how to get in touch
my email is email@example.com
And congratulations again on having Cabbage returned - and I'm so pleased the rest of the dogs got home too!
So pleased that Cabbage and the other dogs ended up safely back home. I do hope Ford's social media team are keeping an eye out for less well amplified stories too - this was a great success, but I feel for all those with stolen pets, property etc whose social networks are smaller and less connected to key players that seemed to play such a critical role here.