The Story of Lewis
LEWIS is a pack llama who ran away from an outfitter’s camp one night in July of 2018. At the time, his name was Ike. He became famous as he roamed the huge park alone for 3 months. Many visitors reported seeing him on his wanderings but nobody could catch him. He was abandoned. Susi heard about his plight and organized his rescue in October of 2018 while snowstorms threatened on the horizon. The llama was soon found on the shores of Lewis Lake and Susi asked him to end his journey. He willingly came to her and they went home together. Ike became Lewis. His story is amazing and true.
The following article was printed in Distinctly Montana in the Spring of 2020.
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LEWIS: Montana’s Favorite Llama
by Susi Hülsmeyer-Sinay
When I saw him for the first time, sitting by the lake, bathed in a spill of sunlight on an otherwise cloudy day in late October of 2018, I felt hopeful that his story might have a happy ending. Pointing my binoculars again at the object in question about a mile away on the far shore of Lewis Lake, it had morphed, beyond any doubt, into a white llama. There he was, looking like he belonged here in the wilds of Yellowstone National Park. But he didn’t.
This was how our adventure began. After a false start, trying to make our way along the boggy shore, we finally found a hiking trail leading in the right direction and were on our way to rescue a llama that had been running free in the park for the last three months. Ike the llama, camped with a commercial tour group at Heart Lake back in July, had disappeared into the night, leaving his halter and lead behind. The reason, it was surmised, was a painful wound on his cheek that his halter had rubbed on. A few attempts to capture him over the following weeks were thwarted by Ike’s daring evasive maneuvers and his stubborn refusal to be caught and put back into bondage. Soon, efforts by both the outfitter and the Park Service were discontinued and the llama abandoned to fend for himself. Park visitors reported spotting Ike along roads and hiking trails throughout the summer and backpackers and motorists posted his photos on social media.
It was no coincidence that my own twenty-plus years’ experience living and packing with and, yes, rescuing these intelligent and charming creatures finally led me on the path to Ike. Being a domestic herd animal, Ike had slim chances of surviving the winter in Yellowstone. Though sufficiently adapted to the harsh climes of the Andes mountains, llamas did not evolve to cope with snow many feet deep; neither are they meant to wander alone through wolf country. After finishing my own llama packing season and hearing about this sad situation, I assempled a small rescue crew of four humans and three llamas and drove down to Lewis Lake in Southern Yellowstone Park, Ike’s last know location. I believed I had a good chance of convincing him to come home with us.
With the three llamas in tow, we hiked through the woods for about a mile without seeing him. Then suddenly, he came running, a flash of white and tan. Ike had spotted the llamas. I could feel his confidence and excitement as he approached. This guy was no fool. The wound on his cheek leaking pus was apparent. I stuck to my resolve not to touch him or otherwise infringe on his space. That had obviously backfired before. He was overjoyed to see the llamas but stared at us humans and I could see his mind working. In the end, he made a decision. He would trust us. As I turned my string of llamas back toward the trail, he followed. Free and unattached, like he wanted, he took his place in the pack string behind the third llama. Ike marched, in true fashion of a pack llama, with us back down the path to the trailer, where he jumped in, together with his new buddies. It was done.
Lewis after surgery
Safely at home in Montana, Ike was renamed “Lewis” after our fateful meeting at the lake. This marked a beginning of a new chapter in his life and letting go of the old for good. Lewis integrated himself with grace into his new herd after his past owner had legally reliquished him. However, the cause of the pain in his mouth had to be explored and was finally diagnosed as advanced periodontal disease with a fractured molar in the far back. An untreated abscess had eroded part of the bone and created an outlet for infected pus. It was, of course, imperative to treat the disease to prevent its spread to other teeth and, eventually, poisoning his organs. Watching Lewis for a few months behaving like a normal, happy animal reminded me how stoic llamas are and how well herd animals hide their injuries and shortcomings from the world. This way the affected individuals not only hide their injury from predators to save themselves but they also protect their herd. Lewis was no exception. But I knew. Based on my vet’s explanations, there was no doubt that Lewis was in serious pain. I also learned that the complicated surgery could not be done by my vet. Because llamas have long mouths, it is impossible to reach and extract a molar in the very back and effectively clean up the infected tissue, like in humans. Therefore a method called “extraoral method” is preferred whereby the surgeon cuts through the cheek and into the jawbone from the outside, pushing the tooth up and out of the jaw. This is done in an operating room setting with a surgical team. Of course, it also comes with a substantial price tag.
Our packing business presently supports 15 llamas with feed, equipment and regular vet care. This new situation challenged our budget. The recommendation was to have Lewis treated at the Colorado State University Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Fort Collins (CSU VTH). I felt confident that Lewis would be in the best possible hands there. But how to come up with the funds? The events that followed are hard to describe without using cliches such as “unbelievable” and “heartwearming”. But that is exactly how it felt. It was July of 2019 and I decided to try GoFundMe. What happened next was a snowball effect of compassion and generosity that gathered speed and attention beyond my most hopeful dreams. The news of Lewis’ rescue in the fall of 2018 had been covered by a number of papers, locally and nationally. It was gratifying. This time, a Bozeman TV station reported our story and GoFundMe appeal and off we went on a wild ride. The response by the public, local, nationwide and even internationally, took us by surprise and sent Lewis and me with sufficient funds on our trip to Fort Collins, where the media was waiting to cover our adventurous story and upcoming surgery. Lewis’ graceful camera presence in front of the hospital charmed more caring folks into making donations and soon he went into surgery under the gifted hands of Dr. Jennifer Rawlinson, DVM, professor of oral dentistry and surgery and his newest fan.
Lewis’ surgery lasted longer than expected. Three infected teeth were extracted, two on the right and one on the left. I sat in the waiting room with the reporters of the greater Denver area, all of us waiting for news together. It was an incredible feeling to be surrounded by the warmth of strangers who cared about a charming camelid called Lewis. They and the over 100 generous donors wanted to be part of this story of compassion and help rid a suffering animal of his pain. I have never felt more grateful. Lewis took it all in stride, as if he had known all along the course his fate would take. His surgery was a success and he has healed completely.
At home, our loyal reporter from the Bozeman TV station visits regularly to keep Lewis’ fans up to date.
“Today, we are in Livingston,” she begins her report as the snow falls on Christmas Eve of 2019, “with Lewis, Montana’s favorite llama!” The camera swings and captures the white llama in Santa garb.
And Lewis smiles as only a llama can.
For more information about Lewis, the other llamas or our treks, call or email: