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January 16, 1991

Mercy Killing: Mercy for Whom?

Author Affiliations

Milwaukee, Wis

Milwaukee, Wis

JAMA. 1991;265(3):326. doi:10.1001/jama.1991.03460030030011

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In a classic film portrayal of the depression era, the character played by Jane Fonda responds with the question, "They shoot horses, don't they?" when asked why she killed her chronically miserable companion. The audience is left to reach its own conclusion about the merits of "mercy killing." I am left with the question, "Yes, but why do they shoot horses?" We all know "they" shoot horses. It is part of our literature, part of our culture. Many of us remember the thoroughbred Ruffian, killed on the infield at Belmont Park after she shattered her foreleg during a match race with Foolish Pleasure. The rabid Old Yeller was shot; so was The Yearling; Black Beauty was almost shot. Actually, as my veterinarian friends are quick to point out, we no longer shoot horses; they are disposed of by lethal injection. But however we kill them, why do we do it?