Courtesy photoFruit-flavored: A U.S. customs agent discovered deer skulls hidden in bags of fruit peels.

Animal skulls discovered being smuggled through SFO

An unusual — and illegal — shipment of six animal skulls was seized by U.S. customs officials at San Francisco International Airport on Monday, an agency spokesman said.

The skulls, tentatively identified as mouse deer, were discovered in a shipment from Southeast Asia destined for Minnesota, Customs and Border Protection spokesman Ed Low said.

Low said he did not know why someone would attempt to ship the skulls to the U.S.

“We get all kinds of weird stuff at the [airport] mail facility,” he said. “Your guess is as good as mine.”

But that wasn’t all. The discovered skulls had horns, but mouse deer do not.

“They were added on,” Low said.

Paxton Forgue, an employee at Paxton Gate, a Mission district store that sells taxidermy items and other natural oddities, said they do get some strange requests, but no one has specifically asked for mouse deer. He suspected the horns may have been added to the skulls to make them look like something other than mouse deer.

“If they’re attaching horns to an animal that doesn’t naturally have horns, it’s either for artistic reasons or for smuggling, or they just don’t know what they’re doing,” Forgue said.

Mouse deer do not appear on the U.S. endangered species list and do not appear to be an exotic, sought-after meal.

A Customs and Border Protection agent examining packages Monday at the mail facility found something unusual in a package arriving from Thailand. Upon further investigation, five bags of dried fruit peels were discovered, Low said. Hidden within the bags were the skulls. Both the fruit peels and skulls were destroyed, as both are prohibited in the U.S. without proper permits.

The chief concern regarding the animal skulls is that as ruminant animals they may carry foot-and-mouth disease, Low said. It’s a highly contagious viral disease in cattle and other hoofed ruminants. The U.S. has been free of the disease since 1929, when the last of nine outbreaks was eradicated, Low said.

Mouse deer are the “smallest known bovines,” Low said.