Shop Owner Arrested After Allegedly Selling Polar Bear Skulls to Undercover Agent

A Canadian woman has been accused of selling and smuggling the skulls of endangered species across the U.S. border.

According to a release from the Department of Justice, United States Attorney's Office, Western District of New York, 26-year-old Vanessa Rondeau of Quebec owns The Old Cavern Boutique, a shop in Montreal that specializes in the "a variety of unique curiosity and oddity items, many composed in whole or in part from wildlife."

Rondeau was charged last week after allegedly attempting to cross the U.S. border while in possession of "numerous undeclared wildlife items," the Bennington Banner reported. The items included "18 crocodile skulls and heads and seven crocodile feet, as well as a three-toed sloth"—both of which are protected species under the U.S. Endangered Species Act—in addition to "12 horseshoe crabs, 30 sea stars, 23 racoon [sic] feet, eight African antelope horns, one human skull 'with mounted butterflies,' four puffer fish and six shark jaws."

Rondeau and her business appeared to have first caught the attention of authorities in 2019, when she reportedly posted a listing for "a taxidermy mounted crow" on Facebook for $325. The caption told interested buyers to "pm," or private message, her for further information.

In September 2019, an undercover special agent with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) contacted Rondeau on Facebook, inquiring about the crow. According to the release, "the Special Agent stated that he resided in the United States and asked about the cost to have the crow mount shipped."

The agent also asked "about any problems shipping 'these things' to the United States because they might be a 'protected species.'" Rondeau, however, reportedly said it had never been an issue because she labeled her goods as an "Art piece" when shipping.

Soon after, in December, Rondeau reportedly posted a polar bear skull in two separate listings. The first listed the item for $750 while the second had it for sale at $799. As was the case before, Rondeau instructed buyers to private message her "if interested." The still-undercover USFWS agent reportedly messaged Rondeau asking for photos of the polar bear skull. In her response, along with the pictures, she allegedly wrote that it was her "last one."

Eventually, the agent purchased the skull for $750, plus $30 for shipping, and it was received in Buffalo, New York, in early February of 2020, according to the release.

In January of 2021, Rondeau once again listed a $699 polar bear skull for sale. The undercover agent purchased that skull as well, for $685, including shipping, and received it on February 11, according to the release.

According to the Banner, USFWS agents also intercepted several of Rondeau's packages sent into the U.S. over the past years. In them, officials found bird skulls, a weasel, a bat and the skin of a protected Hartmann's zebra.

In total, Rondeau is alleged to have mailed about 30 packages into the United States between November 2018 and 2019. Around that same time, she reportedly entered the U.S. 18 times, 12 of which occurred between midnight and 2 a.m.

"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," USFWS Special Agent Ryan Bessey wrote in an affidavit.

Rondeau was released on a $50,000 bail and is scheduled to appear in court June 15.

Swimming Polar Bear
Vanessa Rondeau of Quebec, Canada, has been accused of selling and smuggling the skulls of endangered species across the U.S. border. She reportedly posted on Facebook a polar bear skull in two separate listings. Above, polar bear Anoki swimming at the Maryland Zoo in August of 2008. Alex Wong/Getty Images