On risky terrain with animal decor

Special to The Times

THEY were the kind of browsers that no store wants: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agents, armed with a search warrant and intent on seizing computers and questioning employees. The object of their inquiry: the skull of a small monkey, possibly an endangered species, that had been bought on EBay from a seller in Indonesia and sent to a high-end retailer on La Cienega Boulevard.

The investigation -- including one undercover agent dressed as a deliveryman and, later, another agent posing as a customer during a Valentine’s Day raid -- might simply seem like an amusing tidbit of old news if it were not for the store in question: Blackman Cruz, widely regarded as one of the most prominent, trendsetting home decor retailers in Southern California.

The store’s owners declined to speak on the record because the case is still pending, and a Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman declined to say if charges will be filed or if the investigation will be dropped. Regardless, the incident serves as a reminder that antiques and contemporary home decor alike -- animal bones, zebra rugs and taxidermy, to name a few examples -- can carry unexpected implications.

Fish and Wildlife maintains a list of potentially illegal items on its website, (click on “Tips for Travelers”). A serving tray lined with certain types of reptilian leather, for example, or a pretty queen conch shell for the mantel could pose problems.


California has its own list of protected species (go to and enter “fully protected animals” in the search field); Fish and Game code prohibits buying or selling these species as well as “any part or product thereof” once a species is classified as endangered or threatened. Section 2082 of the code extends the regulations to vintage pieces as well. (Go to .html, click the “Fish and Game Code” box and search using the keyword “2082.”)

Federal agents regularly check retailers, flea markets and websites for items made of ivory, coral, wild bird feathers or other parts of animals and plants covered by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, a 1973 agreement among 80 countries.

Nancy Smith, owner of Necromance on Melrose Avenue, is used to being visited by Fish and Wildlife agents. Her store sells bones, skeletons, mounted animals and other natural artifacts. As a former employee of natural history museums in New York and L.A., Smith says she is acutely aware of the danger of selling prohibited items.

“The law changes all the time,” she says. “If anything is questionable, I don’t buy it and I don’t sell it. I stay away from every bird you can’t find on a farm. Most birds are migratory and protected -- even roadkill. If you see a dead owl in the middle of the street, you can’t pick out a feather. It’s protected.”


She says she buys nothing with ivory in it. Western rattlesnakes are a no-no, so hers come from east of the Mississippi.

Mounted animals continue to be popular among natural history-inspired aesthetes as well as fans of retro steampunk design.

“Some people say it’s terrible, but others find it incredibly beautiful,” says Ray Azoulay, owner of the vintage emporium Obsolete in Venice. “Children are fascinated by it.”

Obsolete’s menagerie of specimens -- a brown bear, a monkey and a wildebeest, among others -- have come from natural history museum dioramas or natural science specialists such as Paxton Gate of San Francisco. All have their papers documenting their origins, he says.


Fish and Wildlife spokesman Scott Flaherty says most reputable dealers know what’s legal and what isn’t. Most problems, he says, involve Internet sales, in which buyers are less likely to know their sellers, and merchandise is more likely to involve the Postal Service and to cross state lines.

“If a person buys something from a reputable dealer in California, he’s going to be OK,” Flaherty says. “But if he buys an item on the Internet or out of state, then he’s at risk of breaking the law.”