I'm currently reading the Dalai Lama's latest book, "The Universe in a Single Atom" and found the following piece interesting:
'...if one examines the history of Buddhist philosophical thinking, there is an understanding that animals are closer to humans (in that both are sentient beings) than they are to plants. This understanding is based on the notion that, insofar as their sentience is concerned, there is no different between humans and animals. Just as we humans wish to escape suffering and to seek happiness, so do animals. Similarly, just as we humans have the capacity to experience pain and pleasure, so do animals. Philosophically speaking, from the Buddhist point of view, both human beings and animals possess what in Tibetan is called shepa, which can be roughly translated as "consciousness," albeit to different degrees of complexity. In Buddhism, there is no recognition of the presence of something like the "soul" that is unique to humans. From the perspective of consciousness, the difference between humans and animals is a matter of degree and not of kind.'
I found this quote was a very good explanation for something I've felt for a long time, but have never really been able to explain as well as was done above. The idea that animals have a consciousness and will try to avoid suffering and seek happiness can have far-reaching consequences if you truly believe it. I sometimes find it strange that people will have a strong attachment and almost reverence for something abstract, such as a sports team or a TV show, or a fictional character, yet they'll think nothing of mistreating a fellow living "conscious" being, whether it be a person or animal.
This quote also reminds me of why I became a vegetarian. Often, when someone discovers I am a vegetarian, I am asked why. For me, there was a specific event in my life that brought about my decision. About six years ago, I was driving home late one night on a dark winding country road. A truck passed me coming from the other direction, and about 30 seconds later, my car's headlights revealed a disturbing scene. A racoon was writhing around in the road in pain - obviously having just been hit by the passing truck. It was a very surreal image - the poor animal flopping around in agony, illuminated by the only light from the headlights and the rest of the area in total darkness. At that moment, I wished I owned a gun so I could get out of my car and put the animal out of its misery. Part of me thought it would be a good idea to try to run the racoon over to kill it, but I was having nagging doubt that maybe it was just stunned and would recover or maybe I wouldn't succeed in killing it and would just hurt it some more. In the end, my weakness got the best of me and I made the decision to just drive around the animal, with the unrealistic hope that the racoon would recover on its own. But, from that moment on, I made a vow that if I could avoid causing the suffering in animals, then I would, and I have been a vegetarian ever since. The haunting image of the racoon is still a vivid reminder for me.
A friend of mine labels me a freegetarian, rather than a true vegetarian. If I am at someone else's home and they have already prepared a meal with meat, I will sometimes eat it. My philosphy in this case is the meat wasn't specifically prepared for me, and it's better to make use of it. An animal's life was already lost, so it is best to not have it go to waste. (The term freegetarian is a combination of "free" and "vegetarian", with the implied meaning that meat will be eaten if it is free. There's also the term vegequarian - vegetarian who also eats seafood, and a freegevegequarian - someone who also eats seafood and free meat. :-)