Dr. Randour’s Legacy: Securing the Data to Bring Animal Cruelty into Sharper Focus

Dr. Mary Lou Randour, who served as senior policy advisor for AWI’s Animals and Interpersonal Violence program until her recent retirement, rarely shies away from a challenge—even if it involves convincing an institution as formidable as the FBI that one of their venerable systems could use an adjustment. In 2014, Mary Lou and Nancy Blaney, AWI’s director of government affairs, persuaded the Federal Bureau of Investigation to add animal cruelty as a separate category in the National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS), the agency’s national crime-reporting database.

If the implications of this victory aren’t immediately apparent, consider this: Previously, animal cruelty incidents—to the extent they were reported at all by state and local law enforcement officials—were tossed into the “miscellaneous crimes” category in NIBRS, where “petty” offenses such as truancy, spitting, and ticket-scalping reside.

Animal Welfare Institute
Mary Lou and Nancy Blaney in front of AWI headquarters in Washington, DC.

Mary Lou, however, recognized the need to establish animal cruelty as a distinct category in the system. Doing so would highlight and collate the data in a way that would allow researchers, policymakers, and others to delve deeper into the how, why, when, and where of animal cruelty crimes. 

Becoming an animal advocate 

Growing up in metropolitan Washington, DC, Mary Lou rarely held back her opinions. By the time she was 4 years old, her parents were already joking about buying her a soapbox. She showed an early activist bent—joining the 1963 March on Washington and later protests for women’s and LGBTQ+ rights. 

Meanwhile, she pursued a PhD in human development and a career in clinical psychology. Mary Lou had been in practice around 15 years when, in 1992, she read Peter Singer’s “transformative” book, Animal Liberation. “I could picture the suffering, and it was so overwhelming and undeserved,” she recalls. She began working with the Doris Day Foundation, first as a volunteer and later as a full-time employee. She sought to focus her training and skills as a psychologist on the link between animal cruelty and other crimes, but encountered only anecdotal data. Thus, in 2002, the NIBRS campaign was launched.

Initial attempts to schedule a meeting with FBI officials, however, proved fruitless. “As with any institution, the FBI resists change, especially if it’s promoted by people from the outside,” Mary Lou explains. Undeterred, Mary Lou and Nancy (then with the Doris Day Animal League) adopted a more grassroots approach, creating a groundswell of support from local lawmakers and law enforcement personnel, state directors responsible for uniform crime reporting, the National Sheriffs’ Association, the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, and advocates for children and domestic violence survivors. They also joined the staff at AWI (Nancy in 2008, Mary Lou in 2011). After 12 years of campaigning and cajoling, the FBI agreed in 2014 to establish animal cruelty as a distinct NIBRS category. 

“I was jubilant when they included this,” Mary Lou recalls. “Then you have to get it working.” In the years since, the task has shifted to enhancing the reporting of animal cruelty crimes by state and local officials.

Addressing the link: animal cruelty and interpersonal violence

Mary Lou and Nancy have hosted workshops for teachers, police, sheriffs, prosecutors, social workers, humane agents, and veterinarians—not only to promote reporting of animal cruelty incidents to NIBRS, but also to encourage “cross-reporting” among the various sectors to foster more effective and timely interventions. During a presentation to the California Teachers Association a few years back, Mary Lou remembers, a teacher recounted that one of her students had written in a class journal that his older sister had beaten the family dog to death with a baseball bat. The teacher was confused about whether and to whom she should report the incident.

Animal cruelty, in fact, is strongly linked to interpersonal violence—the presence of one is a red flag for the other. This link can also be a barrier: Up to 48 percent of domestic violence survivors delay leaving a dangerous situation out of concern for their pet’s safety if left behind. Shortly after joining AWI, Mary Lou helped establish AWI’s Safe Havens for Pets initiative, featuring a directory of sheltering services for pets of domestic violence survivors. Today, it is the largest directory of such services nationwide—listed on the National Domestic Violence Hotline’s website and connecting survivors to more than 1,000 sheltering services across the country.
Mary Lou has also authored handbooks and professional journal articles on the psychology of animal abusers, treatment approaches for abused children, and more. Her most recent study, coauthored with Dr. Lynn Addington, a criminology professor at American University, and published in Criminal Justice Policy Review, used newly collected NIBRS data to highlight fundamental differences between intentional animal abuse and neglect and to address the implications for intervention strategies. 

Along the way, in her “spare” time, Mary Lou led a successful seven-year effort to establish a division of human/animal studies in the American Psychological Association and helped launch a spay-neuter campaign in the Dominican Republic, where she rescued her mixed-breed dog, Sabrina, a vivacious (and vocal) fixture at AWI headquarters. 

Passing the baton

In November, Mary Lou “retired” as an AWI staff member. Retirement, however, is a relative term, as she will continue to serve as a consultant on her latest project, AWI’s Center for the Study of Animal Cruelty Data. The newly launched center will provide readily accessible, updated animal cruelty data through a condensed version of the NIBRS database—a potential goldmine for anyone initiating research on animal cruelty crimes.

To ensure a seamless transition at AWI, Mary Lou handpicked her successor, Claire Coughlin, who shares her data-driven mindset, creative approach to problem solving, and commitment to practical and field-based support for human services, law enforcement, and animal welfare professionals. With an extensive background in strategic outreach, community-based support services for at-risk children and their families, and animal advocacy in her home state of Missouri, Claire will manage the new center and seek to expand the safe havens network.

For Mary Lou, stepping back personally does not mean sacrificing momentum. “My mother was always a very practical woman and I am, too, in a way,” she says. “I am 83, and I built certain things that I want to continue. I want to make sure they are in a place that’s secure and that the people after me will carry them forward.” 

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