It is not illegal to buy a human skull or endangered animal parts.
It is also not completely legal. It’s just really, really complicated.
In September 2015, a scandal involving compensating Planned Parenthood for fetal tissue had news sources around the country speculating wildly and making completely unsubstantiated claims about the law. The sentence that I read over and over was this: “It’s illegal to sell human body parts.”
Wrong. There are very few restrictions on selling non-native human remains, so long as they’re not for the purpose of transplant. And there are even exceptions to that (and exceptions to those exceptions.) On Facebook alone, I’ve seen people sell human eyelashes, skin, amputated limbs, genitals, and yes, many a human fetus in a jar. Got $800? I could get you a pretty decent human skull in almost any state.
But I understand the confusion. There are many laws regarding and restricting the ownership and trade in body parts of animals and people — so many that even the professionals can hardly keep up with them. They are hardly intuitive; the legality of owning a species doesn’t just depend on its rarity, but on a variety of bureaucratic regulations. If you want to try to find out if your remains are legal, here is a document made by a collector. It’s 5,434 words long though, so good luck trying to memorize it.
When you consider oddity collectors, nature enthusiasts, and museum curators, a lot of people like to keep animal remains around. There’s even a growing group of dead-animal hobbyists called “vulture culture,” who try and sometimes fail to follow wildlife laws. And the law is always a hot topic of conversation among people who collect remains. Even the most cognizant “vultures” have accidentally committed wildlife crimes by forgetting to get a permit, having a misidentified bird feather, or misinterpreting labyrinthine state and federal laws.
It’s not that people don’t care about these laws. In my experience, people who trade in animal remains are almost always concerned about legality, and will tell you if you’re dealing with something illegal, or they might even report you. While the Department of Fish and Wildlife isn’t about to bust into your home and search your personal collection, they do have the authority to investigate reports and confiscate goods. (You can potentially also face fines and jail time, depending on what you have.)
In Albany, California, a small shop called The Bone Room is home to a collection of, taxidermy, wet specimens in jars, and other animal and human parts. After over 20 years of business, they are closing. Among reasons for shuttering, the shop owners wrote in their good-bye e-mail that they were feeling hemmed in and persecuted by the “increasingly complex rigmarole we had to go through to ship our materials in or out of the country…”
Perhaps people think that legalities are intuitive, so they just spout what seems logical. That’s why we get people writing and saying things like “human body parts are illegal to sell” and “you can’t have an endangered species,” when neither of those are true. But laws are always complicated, and wildlife remains laws are too complicated to make assumptions. Go buy some dinosaur teeth (mostly legal) and leave that blue jay feather (mostly illegal) on the ground.