Not So Average Animal: Lewis the famous llama

With a new lease on life

In many ways the last few years of Lewis’s life are a pretty good representation of Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero’s Journey.” The hero struggles, finds conflict in the ordinary world, has a “call to adventure.” He heads into the special world where he endures tests and along the way discovers allies and enemies. The hero suffers an ordeal and then surfaces again to the normal world, finding an acceptance and appreciation unknown to him before the journey. 

The weird part about Lewis and his Hero’s Journey is that he is not human – he is a llama. 

In the normal world, he was a working llama – packing gear for folks into Yellowstone National Park. At some point, he suffered a fractured tooth which turned into an abscess. His previous owners handled his condition by loosening his halter – thus allowing him to continue to work. Though stoic, his pain was amplifying as two more teeth became infected and his jaw bone began to disintegrate. 

“Because it hurt him when he had a halter on he decided he had to remedy that situation for himself and run away. He said: ‘I will not be mistreated. I will not be abused. I will run away,’” Susi Huelsmeyer-Sinay, owner of Yellowstone Safari Co. said. “I respect that Lewis did that. I immediately took to [him] because I understood his reasons and I like animals – or people, too – who are independent and who stand up for their cause.” 

Lewis, who at the time was named Ike, famously broke free in Yellowstone National Park in the fall of 2018, where he lived for three months.  He entered the special world of being wild and surviving predators and endured a plethora of inexperienced – and sometimes goofy – humans who thought they could wrangle him. A parade of locals and tourists came through with clumsy attempts at corralling, often topped-off with dramatic lunges. Lewis was smart and a little scrappy – he allegedly jumped over attempted captors. If only he had been wearing a GoPro. 

To their credit, folks tried to help. According to Huelsmeyer-Sinay, his owners made “a few feeble attempts and then abandoned him – just left him to his fate.” She became aware of his plight just before the roads closed for the winter and was convinced he would not survive the harsh conditions of Yellowstone. In her mind, it was likely he would become bogged-down in the deep snow and make himself an easy dinner for an apex predator. 

She rallied – called the National Park Service and told them she was going in. With a trusty friend, a vehicle loaded with camping gear and her trailer packed with a few llamas and some grain, she headed south. The hope was that Lewis would be lured by his fluffy-furred counterparts. 

They had heard he had been spotted near Lewis Lake. Using binoculars, they spotted him about a mile in, sunning himself by the lake, packed the llamas in and shook a bucket of grain. 

“Before I knew it, Ike (Lewis) came running, he was all excited about seeing llamas. He had been without llamas for three months, and llamas need to be with their kind,” she said. “There was no doubt in my mind that he would not have made it.” 

 She approached him differently, understanding that his trust of humans may have been damaged. They made no attempt to halter him and simply shook the bucket of grain. 

“He followed us all the way out to the trailer,” she said. “It was unbelievable that he had enough trust, confidence and intelligence that he made the decision: ‘I’m going to go with these people and these llamas.’”

Found by Lewis Lake, it was upon departure the lucky llama earned his new name for his new life – Lewis. 

“I had a conversation with the previous owners who were happy to let him go, they described him as trouble, and I had already decided I was going to fight for him,” she said. 

Although literally out of the woods Lewis was not figuratively so lucky. His condition was serious and deteriorating. Llama dental procedures are tedious and technical because the surgery has to actually be performed from the outside of the mouth and into the bone itself. This proved beyond the scope of the local veterinarian. He would have to go to Fort Collins to Colorado State University – a costly trip and procedure that Huelsmeyer-Sinay could not afford on her own. So, she decided to use Lewis’s celebrity to benefit him.

“Lewis had been quite famous when he had been rescued in Yellowstone. I thought maybe I could tap into that and get peoples’ attention to Lewis’s plight. And that’s what I did and was able to raise the money needed –  including traveling expenses,” she said. 

With vet students poking and prodding him, Lewis “true to form was a very patient llama.” 

On Dec. 17, 2018 Lewis went into a five hour surgery. His cheeks had to be stapled shut, which later became infected at the surgery site and required a return trip to Colorado. The veterinarian sawed into his jaw and removed bone, so it is fusing back together – a slow process. Though not fully healed for another few months, 12 year old Lewis is still settling into the rhythm of the farm. 

“I don't know of his life before, but he seems to have settled well into the group. He is a tall llama, but he is very mild mannered. He is not challenging anybody and they have accepted him,” Huelsmeyer-Sinay said. “He is back home and is very happy to be back with his buddies again.”

Huelsmeyer-Sinay said she is going to let Lewis choose his own adventures so to speak. She understands him. He understands her, she said. 

“Yes, I think we are kindred spirits,” she said regarding their relationship. 

She would like to take him packing back in Yellowstone next year. An opportunity to give-back to the community will also be offered to Lewis.  Huelsmeyer-Sinay and her llamas volunteer with Eagle Mount oncology camps in the summer that help kids aged 5 to 23 from across the nation have adventures.

“That was great fun and something for the soul – for the llamas to help these people and these kids have a good summer and brighten their days,” she said. “I think in the future I would like to include Lewis in those adventures. I will see what Lewis says, but I would love to include him.” 

Huelsmeyer-Sinay admits that she loved Lewis immediately. She speaks with affection and admiration for him and says she cares so much for him because of his struggle. He endured. He broke free. He survived – and now he is set to thrive. She is thankful he is in her life and appreciative of the people who contributed and will allow for him to greet 2020 pain free. 

“I am grateful for people who listened to the story and who in turn participated in helping him in this next chapter of his life,” she said. “It was definitely a team effort – and we are very grateful. Just in time for Thanksgiving, we are all happy campers.”

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