HIGHGATE SPRINGS — A woman was arrested Thursday after attempting to cross the border into Canada after being found to be in possession of “numerous undeclared wildlife items.”
According to documents filed with the U.S. District Court for the District of Vermont, Vanessa Rondeau, the owner of The Old Cavern Boutique in Montreal, attempted to cross the border with 18 crocodile skulls and heads and seven crocodile feet, as well as a three-toed sloth, both protected species under the U.S. Endangered Species Act and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.
Rondeau was also in possession of 12 horseshoe crabs, 30 sea stars, 23 racoon feet, eight African antelope horns, one human skull “with mounted butterflies,” four puffer fish and six shark jaws.
According to an affidavit filed by Ryan Bessey, a special agent with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Rondeau entered the United States on May 15 at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport from Montreal, but Rondeau had been in the sights of the Fish and Wildlife Service for more than three years.
Between November 2018 and September 2019, Rondeau sent approximately 30 mail parcels into the United States, declared in a variety of ways, such as “cadre,” “art decoration,” “big toy,” “collectable,” “art statue,” and “tapis,” wrote Bessey.
About the same time, Rondeau entered the United States 18 times, 12 of them between midnight and 2 a.m., wrote Bessey.
“Short trips into the United States, at late hours, such as those by Rondeau on July 26 and September 7, 2019 meet border-crossing characteristics seen used by other wildlife traffickers,” he wrote.
In January 2020, Bessey, in an undercover capacity, asked Rondeau in a private message if she had any polar bear skulls for sale. Rondeau offered to sell a skull to Bessey for $780. In early February, Bessey received the skull in the mail. A year later, Bessey purchased another polar bear skull from Rondeau, this time for $711.
About this same time, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had intercepted a number of packages sent by Rondeau, containing skulls from a bird, a weasel and a bat. Another intercepted package contained the skin from a Hartmann’s zebra, another protected species.
Rondeau has been cited with violating the Lacey Act, which prohibits the trafficking of items that come from endangered species.
Under the Endangered Species Act, all wildlife must be declared to the Fish and Wildlife Service upon import into the United States and prior to its export from the United States.
“An international oddities and curiosities market exists in which unique and often rare items are sought by collectors,” wrote Bessey. “Such items can include early medical instruments, crystals, preserved natural history items, taxidermy items, and skeletons. In this market, wildlife parts, and products thereof, are popular items and frequently bought and sold. In particular, skulls, both human and animal, are in high demand to oddities collectors. Typically, the rarer the species, the more valuable and sought after a skull becomes.”
The Old Cavern Boutique offers for sale “a variety of unique curiosity and oddity items, many composed in whole or in part from wildlife,” he wrote.