The U.K.’s Royal Veterinary College threw open its doors to the public recently for what it called a “free evening of fun activities and hands-on science.” The theme of the night was chickens.

The program looked interesting enough and the reality, for me at least, was far beyond expectation. There was, however, an awful lot more going on at this event and it offered, in addition to the “amazing science”  –  lessons that would have been of benefit to the broader poultry industry.

So, what was so special about this night?

Let’s go back to the agenda.

There was a presentation on the links between chickens and dinosaurs – the latter always a favorite with children – a demonstration of bird anatomy conducted with more humor than gore, a treasure hunt, discussions of welfare, and it was all rounded off with a pub quiz in the college bar to see just what attendees had learned.

The event took place in London. And for those that have never been face to face with a chicken, there were a few feathered friends in the college’s courtyard.

The way that you do it

Professor John Hutchinson looked at how traits in today’s chickens can be traced back to dinosaurs. Fossils and clips from Jurassic Park were used to demonstrate the evolution and survival of certain characteristics in today’s birds – perhaps the most successful dinosaurs of all. 

When the college anatomist Andrew Crook revealed what a chicken is made of, he quickly tired – like many in the audience – due to too many Sundays spent carving a roast chicken! So instead of a chicken, an ostrich was served up, and gradually disassembled as the anatomist’s work was relayed onto a big screen. 

Then there was a discussion of welfare. Martin Smith allowed the audience to vote on what they thought were the most welfare-friendly methods for rearing poultry, as well as on topics such as the highest and lowest price of eggs in U.K. supermarkets. 

Perceptions of welfare were contrasted with measurable outcomes, and this resulted in some lively and revealing debate. One audience member, for example, asked if more expensive eggs contained more protein. Once enlightened, he could see no reason to buy them. 

And alongside the lectures, there were various booths detailing research projects.

Best night out

Spaces at the event were limited and the night drew a mixed crowd of varying ages and backgrounds. I have to say that, for me, it was one of the best nights out I have had for ages!

I hear about other initiatives to reach the public and have attended a few, but this was something really rather different. This was not simply a demonstration, but the public was made to think – not least through the interactive lecture. 

This was not a night about influencing, but more about educating; the public could make up their own minds based on easy-to-understand research findings. There was genuine engagement, rather than simply preaching – the latter being something that I see all too often at other events.

You might argue that the team at the RVC is well placed to do this, having interacted with students for years, but that does not really matter. Theirs was an approach that worked, and might well serve as a model for the wider industry. Yes, there were drawing classes, and there was fun, but there was a serious side too. 

And those in attendance were consumers and the friends of consumers. I, for one, have mentioned the evening to a few friends, and it would be no surprise if other attendees have done the same. So it is interesting to think how much influence A Night at the Vet College has had.

It cannot be denied that the night was designed to promote the Royal Veterinary College and its work – and there is nothing wrong with that – but it achieved so much more.

I will leave you with the question of how successful is the poultry industry at engaging the public in this way? This event was fully attended, with young and old, and they did not sit in silence but asked questions and engaged. Perhaps there is a leaf or two that the wider industry could take from the RVC’s lecture notes.