VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. - Nicholas Olenik has battled mental health challenges throughout his life.
As a sometimes anxious child, it took longer for him to process emotions. Four years ago, the 41-year-old fell into a depression when his brother died from a heart attack. The dark days of the pandemic, and his father's battle with — and later death from — cancer in 2021 only made things worse.
So last year, after a buddy told him about emus and how they can be a great emotional support companion, Olenik decided to give it a try.
That's right, emus — the large flightless birds from Australia that typically stand about 5-foot-7 and weigh more than 100 pounds.
Olenik purchased an emu egg locally, watched over it until the chick hatched in December, and bottle fed her as she grew. He and wife Sarah named the chick Nimbus and allowed it to roam freely through the house they share with their teenage daughter and Olenik's aunt in the Kempsville area. While they all watched with delight as Nimbus cuddled with them and their other pets, it was clear her closest bond was with Olenik, whom she followed throughout the house and yard.
Nicholas Oleniks wife, Sarah, shows a photo of Nimbus mimicking his facial expression at their home in Virginia Beach on Friday, July 28, 2023. (Kendall Warner/The Virginian-Pilot/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)
"I came back to life because of that emu," Olenik said during an interview at their home. "You can't be sad when you're with an emu. They're the cutest damned things ever."
All that joy came to a halt earlier this year when a neighbor complained to Virginia Beach Animal Control, and Olenik was cited for having livestock in an area not designated for it. In March, a District Court judge found him guilty and ordered him to pay a $50 fine. Because Olenik planned to appeal, the judge held off on ordering him to get rid of Nimbus.
Olenik got the news he'd been hoping for when Virginia Beach Circuit Judge Kevin Duffan issued a 2-page opinion finding Olenik not guilty of the charge and ruling he can keep his beloved pet at his home. The judge also dismissed the matter with prejudice, meaning the city can't refile the case.
According to Duffan's opinion, the legal definitions of "companion animal" and "livestock" — and how Nimbus fit into those definitions — weighed heavily in his decision.
At the new trial, Olenik's attorney, Alexander H. Bell, presented the judge with photos showing Nimbus roaming in Olenik's house and cuddling on the floor with the family's golden retriever, as well as a letter from Olenik's psychologist, confirming the emu was an emotional support animal. Olenik testified Nimbus spent most of her time indoors and wore a harness and leash when she left the property.
"What is a trial court to do when presented with evidence that an animal clearly defined as livestock is also defined as a companion animal," Duffan wrote in his opinion.
The judge noted that while city code prevents livestock from being in areas not designated for it, there are exceptions when the animals are kept as household pets. He also pointed to case law that defined livestock as animals "raised for food or fiber."
"The record is clear that Nimbus is treated like family," Duffan wrote. "There is no question that the Defendant is not raising Nimbus for ‘food or fiber'… While it is highly unusual that someone would keep an emu as a pet — or as a companion animal — while residing in the heart of suburbia, Defendant has shown to the court that it is not impossible."
The news, however, came a little too late for Olenik to have a happy ending with Nimbus.
As the case kept getting continued in the spring, he said prosecutors would only agree to a another continuance if Nimbus were removed from the home until it was resolved. So he decided to take her to stay with the friend in Tennessee who'd told him about emus and also runs an animal rescue and wildlife rehab center. In June, Olenik drove 16 hours there in a minivan with his mother, a friend and Nimbus.
"I cried all the way home," he said. "It was so hard."
While in Tennessee, Nimbus fell for a male emu on the property, Olenik said. She and her mate seem so happy that Olenik has decided to leave Nimbus there. But he hasn't given up on emus, he said, and plans to get another to add to the family's now extensive collection of birds.
After they got Nimbus, Olenik and his wife added six hens, three ducks, and a turkey that all live outside. Emus like watching over other birds, Olenik said, and he wanted to give Nimbus something to do when she was outside. The family's indoor pets include three dogs and two cats.
While he enjoys all his pets, Olenik said Nimbus was special, making him smile and laugh all the time. He believes emus can help others like him and wants to get the word out.
The court case even spurred Olenik to run for office: He's now vying as an Independent for Virginia's 96th District house seat, facing Democrat incumbent Kelly Convirs-Fowler and Republican challenger Mike Karslake.
At the bottom of his website's homepage is a photo of Nimbus wearing a red, white and blue hat with the sentence, "It all started with an emu." In addition to mental health, Olenik's platform includes supporting military members and veterans, farmers, law enforcement and education.
He said he decided to file for office immediately after being found guilty at the lower court level.
"The judge told me: ‘Mr. Olenik if you don't like these laws you need to go to Richmond and change them yourself.' And that's what I plan to do."
He knows there are people who probably will laugh at him for having an emotional support emu, and he's even heard other politicians refer to him as "the emu guy." But he said it doesn't bother him.
"It may not be for everyone, but it was for me," Olenik said. "I needed that bird and she needed me. She brought me back enough that here I am now running for state delegate."