The Humane Society of the United States has signed on to several successful animal welfare ballot issues in other states in the last several years, but its president denied Sunday night that his trip to Nebraska has anything to do with launching a similar initiative here.
"I am not announcing any ballot issue," Wayne Pacelle told an audience of about 150 people at the Downtown Holiday Inn in Lincoln. "We are not advancing a ballot issue in the state of Nebraska."
That doesn't mean that one of the most prominent voices in the animal welfare cause or his host, Litchfield grain and livestock producer Kevin Fulton, are any less concerned about situations in this state where veal calves, pregnant sows and laying hens might be crowded into what they regard as less than humane conditions.
"I would like to see changes without going through an initiative," said Fulton, 50, a producer of organically grown wheat and hay and also of beef calves, pigs, laying hens and other livestock.
Pacelle said his organization is trying to work with the Nebraska Legislature to address its concerns, including puppy mills and pet protection orders in situations where marriages disintegrate and domestic abuse becomes a risk.
As word of Pacelle's visit spread in the last few days, Nebraska farm organizations wondered aloud about its motive.
And David Martosko, spokesman for HumaneWatch, a group opposed to much of the Humane Society agenda, has tried to feed suspicions that Nebraska will soon be added to a list of states where voters have been asked to send a message to the livestock sector.
"I would not be surprised at all if this were sort of the soft launch of a ballot campaign," Martosko said before the start of the Lincoln event.
He also answered questions about a billboard advertisement that HumaneWatch put on display near the intersection of 11th and L Streets in Lincoln in the last week that displays three surprised-looking dogs.
Next to it is this statement: "The Humane Society of the United States shares less than 1 percent of your donation with local pet shelters."
Pacelle acknowledged the billboard during his appearance. He said his organization is a separate entity from those that exist at the local and state level, including Lincoln's Capital Humane Society.
"The implication is that we spend 1 percent of our money on animals," he said. "Nothing could be further from the truth."
He noted on-going work in opposition to slaughter of seals off the coast of Canada, for example, attempts to stop Japan, Norway and Iceland from killing whales, and efforts to save thousands of pets that were victims of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.
"We spend more money on caring for animals than any other organization in the United States."
But those kinds of assertions didn't win over all of his Sunday night listeners, many of them veterinary students at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
"It just feels like you're coming after us," said student Jay Nordhausen of Ogallala.
Another student, Jake Geis of Newcastle, wanted to know why the Humane Society was at odds with many of the practices endorsed by the American Veterinary Medical Association. Geis said the underlying message seemed to be that "you know more than the authority."
Pacelle conceded areas of disagreement, but denied that the Humane Society was "anti-agriculture."
The cattle feedlots so predominant in Nebraska, for example, "are not nearly as extreme" in restricting animal movements as are some other standard livestock practices.
Martosko of Humane Watch said it's a national program of the non-profit Center for Consumer Freedom, which has "a long history of opposing political initiatives that restrict people's choices in food and beverages."
Restaurants and food companies are among its members.
Sought out later, he said he did not get that competing message into the Humane Society event, because he was denied entry.
"I was not able to attend," he said, "and that's their right."