Ben Cromeens was happy to meet with us in his Spring Branch office, but first he needed to pick up his giraffe. Or rather his giraffe skin. It was for a client—a hunter who’d shot the animal in Africa—and by the time it arrived, it would be as hard as plywood, having been dried in salt. Cromeens would then forward it to the tannery for a three-week treatment, although he probably wouldn’t see the skin again for four or five months, owing to the tannery’s backlog. During the wait, Cromeens would purchase a giraffe mannequin and alter it according to the present animal’s original size and stature, such that when the skin finally arrived back from the tannery, he could slide it over the mannequin and glue it on with ease. If this giraffe were like most, he told us, eight months could pass between the time his company, Tri-State Taxidermy, acquired the dead animal and it left Cromeens’s workshop, still dead but looking alive. It occurred to us that babies are born after a gestation period not much longer than the time it takes Cromeens’s animals to be reborn. But we didn’t mention it.
“I really don’t know how much longer this will be around,” he says at a desk in his showroom, whose occupants include an African lion, a pronghorn antelope and a brown bear. “Each year, it gets harder and harder.” Not that the business isn’t lucrative, not with clients willing to spend up to $10,000 a year creating stuffed trophies of their hunting triumphs. And not that Cromeens’s work is in any less demand. If anything, there are far more jobs than people to do them. No, there’s something else endangered, and it’s not the animals this time. It’s the taxidermists.
“This is a narrowing funnel of people,” says the 39-year-old ruefully. Taxidermy, an ancient trade, must still be done in the ancient way—by hand—and people don’t want to work with their hands these days, it seems. “I wanted to build skills,” he says, thinking back to his 16-year-old self, the Eisenhower High School boy who was already an apprentice taxidermist when everyone else was sacking groceries. Still, he didn’t see it as a career, not yet. He dreamed instead of being a jet jockey in the Air Force, before coming back to earth and A&M, where he got a degree in wildlife and fishery science. From there, it was off to a job managing such issues as antler development in various Texas towns, including Seguin.
Going from biologist to taxidermist would seem an unusual career shift, but it wasn’t brought on by a sudden antipathy toward animals, unless by animals you mean humans. “When you’re a biologist professionally, nobody wants to recognize that they may be ignorant of something or that you may know something,” Cromeens says. “They end up becoming belligerent, and I got tired of arguing with people.”
The animals stare at us quietly from the walls of the showroom. There is no arguing here, only serenity, along with a number of first- and second-place trophies and ribbons from the National Taxidermists Association. “I want something beautiful around me,” he says, before clarifying that he doesn’t mean conventional beauty. A beautiful elk, for one, doesn’t interest him in the least. He’s drawn instead to animals whose form and physique announce their individuality. Having good hair helps too. “If you talk to a lady who has wonderful hair, most any will tell you beautiful hair [comes from] a good diet, and it transfers the same to animals,” Cromeens says. “When you see an animal that has very beautiful hair, normally that’s a very healthy animal.”
As the morning goes on, we learn several other things: that although more women are hunting now than ever, the trophy-hunting community remains more than 90 percent male, and most wives love a zebra hide rug but squeal at the sight of a javelina snout. What else? Oh, also there’s no blanket reason for why hunters seek to immortalize their kills. “Some people might keep trophies for braggadocio reasons,” he says. “Some people just do it for their own memories—it’s just like having a three-dimensional photo—and some of them actually feel that it pays respect to the animal.” Small wonder that there’s such a market for taxidermy, what with so many people wanting to preserve animals for so many reasons. The question is, will anyone preserve the profession?
“If it all goes away, it does,” Cromeens says. “That’s how it is, man. The world will get what it needs or deserves. As far as a legacy or whatever, I’m really not that worried about it.”