Why A Coyote?

It’s probably the first question anyone will ask when looking at the O’Reilly-inspired front page of my site. (If they don’t notice the “Internet Engineer and Coyote” text at the top of the book cover, the first question will probably be “What animal is that?” But it will then immediately be followed by this question.) So here are a variety of reasons why I picked a coyote:

They’re Intelligent, Clever, and Creative

Coyotes are known in Native American lore, and among naturalists and zoologists, for their high intelligence and cleverness. Those who have observed coyotes in the wild tell many tales of their ingenious solutions to problems (usually the problem of sneaking up on some prey animal). One naturalist has observed a coyote using a moving freight train as cover for a surreptitious approach to a group of animals on the other side of the train tracks. Another coyote-watcher witnessed one building an impromptu earth-work on the side of a hill to funnel the water from an imminent rain-storm into a gopher hole, then waiting to catch the gopher once the rain started falling.

One legend about Coyote, from the Navajo (or Dineh) people, has him using his intelligence and cleverness to kill a giant, even though it’s too big to perceive as a single entity. In an example of creative problem-solving and “turning a negative into a positive,” he takes advantage of being inside the giant in order to more effectively attack its weak points. Like a modern knowledge worker, Coyote knew how to “work smarter, not harder”.

Coyote was a Fire-Bringer

In Native American lore, Coyote was a fire-bringer and teacher, much like Prometheus in Classical Greek mythology. Tribe after tribe told tales of Coyote stealing fire from hostile beings for the benefit of humanity. In one tale, originally from the Karuk tribe of northern California, Coyote steals fire from the Three Fire Beings (called the Yellowjacket Sisters in some versions). He then passes the fire off to various other animals in a sort of impromptu relay-race to stay ahead of the angry fire beings, until the fire is trapped in a tree or piece of wood. Coyote then teaches humans how to make fire by rubbing two sticks together.

Of course, in the modern era, we’ve switched to using electricity for the sorts of things we used to get from fire. But fire’s still a good symbol for technology and tool-use in general, and we still consider it one of the things that separates us from animals. As someone who works with high technology, I consider Coyote’s fire-bringing a terrific symbol of my own desire to make technology accessible to other people. (It’s also interesting to note at least one example of a wild coyote dealing with fire just fine.)

Coyotes Are Helpful and Cooperative

Fire-bringing is just one example of Coyote’s services to the rest of the world. In the Navajo tale mentioned above, Coyote doesn’t just use his wits to kill the giant; he also rescues a large number of people who have already been swallowed by it. Indeed, Coyote spends a fair amount of time in Native American legends wandering around and killing monsters, partly to clear them out of the way and make life safe for everyone else.

Similarly, I see things like writing good error-handling code and bounds-checking of unknown inputs as a way of proactively slaying the kinds of “monsters” that lurk around web sites and servers. Taking care of problems before they start is just part of the archetype.

And whether you look at folklore (such as the Karuk “fire relay race” tale mentioned above) or at nature itself, coyotes know how to cooperate with others. There are many reports of wild coyotes cooperating with badgers in hunting ground squirrels and other burrowing rodents: The badgers are good at digging up the burrows, while coyotes can catch any prey that tries to escape above ground.

The cooperative style of the coyote is exactly the sort of skill that’s necessary to keep a web site running smoothly: a web developer may have to work in tandem with graphic designers, database administrators, system or network admins, and even colo facility personnel, in order to keep the site running smoothly.

Coyotes are Flexible and Adaptable

From their initial range in the western United States and the north of Mexico, coyotes have taken advantage of the reduction in the wolf population to expand their range throughout the 48 continental states, north into Canada and Alaska, and south to Costa Rica. They can survive in nearly any type of habitat, including desert, prairie, mountains, forests, and even suburbs and cities. Despite their usual desert associations, they are strong swimmers, and have even settled on the Elizabeth Islands, off the coast of Cape Cod.

Their social structures are also flexible. Depending on the terrain, availability of prey animals and other food, and the coyotes’ own population density, they may operate in a solitary mode, in pairs, or in packs of up to nearly a dozen.

Of course, that kind of adaptability is absolutely crucial for anyone who wants to work with the Internet; the technologies we use are constantly changing. It wasn’t so many years ago that web sites were all built using HTML 3.2, endless <font> and nested <table> tags, and not a bit of CSS in sight. Now we use XHTML and CSS, and AJAX is making it possible to do nearly anything without a page refresh. Like the four-footed coyote said about the disappearance of the wolf, “What an opportunity!”

They’re North American Natives

I was born in Brooklyn, NY, with a heritage best described as “pure-bred American mutt”; my background includes Irish, Scottish, Italian, Lithuanian, Russian, and possible admixtures of Mongol and African-American, to name just a few. It’s the kind of mix you could only find in North America, and particularly the United States.

Similarly, the coyote is a classically North American animal. Its original range was pretty firmly in the central and western parts of the continent, and despite its expanded range in the modern era, the coyote is still considered an icon of the American West. Coyotes symbolize freedom and the can-do, pioneering spirit that settled this country.

A Final Point

In addition to all their other sterling qualities, coyotes have one final advantage for the purposes of this site: They are (for the moment, at least) not yet in use in the actual O’Reilly bestiary, so there was no chance of confusion with an existing O’Reilly manual cover.