As a linebacker on the Ithaca College football team, Dan Cimino was used to chasing greyhounds from Moravian, hounding hawks from Hartwick and even destroying the Red Dragons of Cortland St. But as a first-year veterinary student, the unnecessary roughness of a spitting alpaca was something new.
Much of his job was just to hold on.
After a successful career playing football at IC and graduating in 2013 with a degree in biochemistry, Cimino is now a student at Cornell’s prestigious College of Veterinary Medicine. Cimino’s first year, during which he met Radar the alpaca, unfolded on national television as he and a handful of his Cornell classmates starred in the Nat Geo Wild channel’s reality show “Vet School.”
As he squared up with the alpaca, Cimino drew upon the experiences he’d had during hour upon hour of work both on the practice field and in IC’s classrooms and labs.
It might take a linebacker’s will to vaccinate an alpaca in the open field, but tackling the complex and ever-changing world of virology requires a delicate hand and a well-trained mind.
When he came to Ithaca College from New Paltz, N.Y., Cimino had been eying a future in a health field. In his junior year, he began volunteering at the Tompkins County SPCA and shadowing local vets, applying what he had learned in class.
“I felt comfortable with the material and comfortable pushing myself to learn more even when it wasn’t asked of me by professors,” said Cimino. “I saw how the work at IC was translating over, and I knew this is where I was supposed to be.”
Things were also going well on the gridiron that year. Cimino started every game for the Bombers, earning a career-high seven tackles and causing a fumble against No. 21-ranked Salisbury. He was twice named an Honorary Defensive Captain, and that spring he was named to the Empire 8 Conference President’s List, which recognizes outstanding student-athletes.
He says that even today, knowing how to read the opponent’s offense is the key.
“Being a linebacker has helped tremendously with the restraining of animals and also just being aware of the whole situation, seeing everything around me,” he said. “You have to predict what’s going to happen, whether they’re going to run or pass the ball, and I find myself with the same instincts at the barn, predicting whether the horse is going to kick me or freak out.”
He diplomatically refers to those anxious and unruly animals as “uncooperative patients.”
Always a goal-oriented and hard-working team player, Cimino appreciated the same qualities in the National Geographic camera crew who followed him around.
“If I’m up at 5 a.m., they’re up at 5 a.m. to set up,” he said. “They lived it.”
And in the dairy barn, they weren’t just catching moments.
“Poop is flying everyplace, and they’re getting hit. We’re just used to it--nobody flinches--but they’re freaking out about it,” said Cimino. “So that’s kind of fun seeing them going through the same things we go through.”
There were, however, more glamorous times. Flown out to Los Angeles for media meet-and-greets, Cimino was put up in the Beverly Hilton, home of the Golden Globe Award ceremony.
Back in Ithaca, it’s weird but fun to be recognized, like when the Collegetown Bagels cashier sees him and remembers his usual order.
The series ran for eight episodes in the fall of 2015. His experience on the show has left him with a video yearbook of sorts – one that includes him peering into the eyes of a stuffed animal and learning something as simple as the infamous but vital “handwashing dance.”
“Someday it’s going to be really cool to look back and see how I was my first year of vet school,” said Cimino.
He’s definitely not the first former football player to find a job on TV, but he might be the only one who’s ever suited up against a cranky alpaca.
“I’m only ever happy when I’m doing something new. Ultimately, I think I chose veterinary medicine because of that.”