When asked why I'm a vegetarian, my answer is, "because of the dolphins." Well, that used to be my answer anyway, back in the early days before I realized that the actual reason most people asked me why I was a vegetarian, was not because they were actually interested or curious, it was because they wanted to tell me why they ate meat. No, but really, it's because of the dolphins! :)
In the summer of 1991 I had gotten a job at Sea World in San Antonio, TX., at Ye Old Woodcutters (cutting names out of blocks of wood with a scroll saw lol.) Everyday I had to pass the dolphins on my way to and from my booth. There was a lot of hubbub around that time concerning dolphins being killed by tuna fishing, so consequently, there were a lot of documentaries and such being made about dolphins. After watching a few of these and especially one with John C. Lilly talking about the dolphin brain and seemingly highly complex consciousness, I just had one of those moments.
It was just one of those shifts in perspective, that sometimes seem so small in retrospect, but really make a big difference in the way you see the world. I suddenly saw the dolphins that I was passing at work everyday as conscious beings, looking at me every bit as much as I was looking at them. I'm not saying that I necessarily thought they were self-aware in the same way humans are, or that they have some kind of symbolic way of thinking, I just became aware of there being, behind those eyes, an awareness that was perceiving the world from it's own center. In other words, they ceased being objects, and became their own subjects.
Well that almost immediately led to me completely reconsidering how I thought about all living things, and concluded that I had to become a vegetarian. What it boiled down to was this, however complex an animal's consciousness, it is still an individual, experiencing being. As such, doesn't it have the same right to live as I do? Or, to put it the opposite, doesn't it have the same right to kill and eat me as I have to kill and eat it? Well, the fact is, I don't really want to be killed and eaten, so I only feel that it's proper to extend the same courtesy. Also, just out of plain empathy, from then on I couldn't possibly kill and eat an animal unless it was truly a matter of survival. And if I couldn't kill it myself, then it would be hypocritical to let others do my killing for me. So I stopped eating meat. (I do confess that my impulse has always been towards veganism, but I've never been able to completely go vegan, though I do try.)