Sophie arriving at her new home in late 2022 in the early hours of the morning. Image: Rory Cellan-Jones
Exiting through the large glass doors of Broadcasting House after a leaving do, former BBC tech correspondent Rory Cellan-Jones was stopped by a familiar face. Big Issue vendor George Anderson was standing outside, flogging his copies of the magazine to some of the biggest names in media.
“How’s Sophie?” he asked eagerly.
How is Sophie doing? You know, #SophiefromRomania.
It’s the question thousands of people are asking as they log into Twitter each day to get updates on the life of a little black and brown dog with pointy ears, expressive eyes and a tail most often curled between her legs.
While he already had a substantial Twitter following, Cellan-Jones has amassed over 100,000 new followers since he first started posting about his new lodger on Christmas Eve.
A short clip, posted three weeks later, of Sophie allowing herself to be stroked, slowly, gently, by Cellan-Jones’ wife, economist Diane Coyle, was liked by almost 60,000 people.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” he says, “there’s an amount of pressure each morning, people are asking ‘what’s up? Why haven’t you posted her yet?’”
Sophie is just one of thousands of dogs, mostly driven in vans across Europe, that are adopted by families the UK. Figures from the government’s Animal and Plant Health Agency show that in 2019, almost 20,000 dogs were rehomed in Britain from Romania.
Some days the update might just be a nose from behind the sofa, others a clip of Sophie in the garden learning to play with a ball, or tentatively taking a piece of cheese from an outstretched palm, but the internet has been enthralled by the life of this worrisome soul.
Eight weeks ago – it was the Saturday before Christmas – Sophie arrived to her new London home. She was chosen from a website of hundreds of dogs living in Romania, offered a new home in the UK via a charity.
Romania’s stray dog problem ballooned out of control during the dictatorship of communist Nicolae Ceaușescu in the 1970s and ‘80s, who forced thousands of people to abandon their rural communities and move to industrialising cities. Left behind, the dogs multiplied and multiplied. After the Romanian revolution in 1989, which saw the execution of Ceaușescu, addressing the huge numbers of strays simply wasn’t top of the priority list.
Dogs are regularly rounded up to be crowded into public shelters, according to Barking Mad Dog Rescue, which works to rescue and rehome abandoned dogs in Romania. Once in the public shelters, the dogs can be legally killed after 14 days.
Before arriving in London, Sophie had been living in a barn.
“We’d been expecting that she would be nervous – because our dog that we got from a British rescue organisation Dogs’ Trust, Cabbage, was very flighty and nervy and very eager to go for walks,” says Cellan-Jones.
But what they weren’t prepared for was just how scared she was, and how long that has lasted.
As we’re talking on the phone, Cellan-Jones is trying to bribe Sophie out from behind the sofa with a piece of steak. A clattering sound rings down the line – her feet scratching on the wooden flooring as she bolts back.
“Oh no, she’s retreated again now. She’s so cautious. She scares herself sometimes,” he says.
The first five weeks of Sophie’s life in Britain were spent behind that sofa, scared to be touched, to eat from her bowl, and particularly terrified of the horrifying contraption that is a washing machine.
“I’m not a very patient person,” he says, “but it has certainly taught me some patience”.
This isn’t the first time Cellan-Jones, 65, has decided to go public with his personal struggles, showing that things aren’t always as easy as we might assume. In 2019 he spoke openly about his Parkinson’s disease diagnosis, following concerns from viewers who noticed his hand shaking on a live TV broadcast.
He’s been “upfront about it”, keen, even, to share his experience of the disease through writing about it online and even participating in the trial of a device that provides early diagnosis and monitoring of Parkinson’s.
“I’m slowing down, I’m not as nimble as I was, my typing is terrible, I don’t sleep so well, but if you see me on a good day you wouldn’t know I had it.”
The main thing he wants people to take away from sharing his experience with Sophie “is you need to be realistic about rescue dogs – particularly foreign ones, and you need to be prepared for the challenge.”
There’s some black humour in the fact that part of the reasoning behind adopting Sophie, was that he could have a dog to help him exercise, eagerly waiting at the door to be taken for a walk.
At least for now, however, that’s a long way off, but there are thousands upon thousands of people eagerly awaiting the day they watch Sophie introduced to a lead and harness, running joyfully across London’s green parks.
Reflecting on why #SophiefromRomania has struck such a chord, he laughs. As a journalist with a 40-year career at the BBC, he knows it’s a classic tale. “There’s hope, there’s peril! Will it turn out alright?”
And will it? We’re all watching with bated breath. But for him, it’s better to focus on the present, without getting too caught up in lofty dreams of the future. One day at a time.
“I’m dreaming of her lying on the sofa, not behind it,” he says.
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