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BAD MOON RISING? <br> FIRSTHAND EXPERIENCES SHINE SOME LIGHT ON THE BELIEF THAT FULL MOONS BREED BIZARRE BEHAVIOR

"It is the very error of the moon;

She comes more near the earth than she was wont,

And makes men mad."

-- William Shakespeare

You hear it all the time: "There must be a full moon. Everyone is acting crazy!"

Since ancient times, the moon and its phases have had the power to mystify. But it's the full orb that really packs a wallop, shining down like a beacon in the night, striking out monthly just to shake things up.

After a full moon this week, and a lunar eclipse Wednesday night, the moon is on our minds. And what better time than Halloween Day to look at Earth's beloved satellite and its effect on the people of our planet. Does a full moon really bring out bizarre behavior?

Health care workers say it often does.

"People act strange on full-moon days," noted Nurse Manager Denise Stutzman of the Mercy Ambulatory Care Center in Orchard Park. "A different kind of people come out, a stranger group. We had one female patient who jumped from a tree because she thought she could fly. She suffered a minor fracture."

Research indicates that mortals are not the only beings moonstruck. Animals catch full-moon fever, too. Dogs bite, deer mate. Owls become more vocal.

To explore the moon's effect on behavior, we talked to emergency room doctor and psychiatrist, naturalist and nurse, astronomer and wildlife administrator. The zoo lady, too.

Our findings are far from scientific. Some are rather strange. But no matter what the moon's influence -- if any -- remember one thing.

It's only a passing phase.

Strange behavior

The power of the moon is often used to explain a wide range of occurrences -- including insanity, violence and criminal activity.

"It does bring out more calls that are a bit stranger, more eccentric, from people who just want to talk about strange things that are not related to our business," said Paul J. Gajewski, Erie County's 911 communication director. "It's a proven fact from our experience. It does happen.

"Most of these operators have been here 20 to 25 years, and a lot of us have that feeling that you just get weirder calls," Gajewski added. "People appear more off-the-wall when the moon is full."

Off the radar screen could be more like it. One 911 operator reported a caller who complained of a neighbor shooting laser beams at his house. Full-moon callers tend to ramble, Gajewski explained, reporting incidents that appear to take place in their minds alone. And while some of these calls originate from psychiatric wards of area hospitals, one local psychiatrist bashed the causal relationship between the moon's phase and incidents of psychotic behavior.

"I have never correlated people's complaints and the moon," said Dr. John Wadsworth. "I just have never really thought about it. When I see a patient, I don't check the moon. I never thought it was relevant. The issue is how sick the patient is. It's not what the moon is. There are so many other correlations that are more important, like how much they are drinking or how their family is doing. People have always talked about how the emergency room is busier on the full moon, but my impression would be that it's probably not."

Full-moon trauma

Full-moon nights are memorable to those driving home after working a shift at the emergency room. Ask Dr. Ashok Kaushal, who oversees the emergency department at Mercy Ambulatory Care Center. He expects business to be brisk when the moon shines full.

"You see more people with strange complaints, more depression and anxiety, more panic disorders," Kaushal said. "Scientific data suggests there is an increase in psychiatric disorders on days of a full moon."

Dog bites, too, according to Stutzman, the nurse manager.

"In one full-moon day we had three dog bites," she said. "It was the owners' dogs, too. It wasn't like a stray.

"People will come in with odd complaints that they've had for three months at 3 in the morning," she added. "When I come in the next morning to talk to my night staff, I'll say: 'I know it's a full moon, so you've must have had a bad night.' It's just a busier, crazier night. Crazy things happen, and it takes longer to accomplish anything."

Dr. Dietrich Jehle spouts a different view on full-moon fever, pointing to a study that rejects lunar cycles as a cause for erratic behavior and violence. Since 1990, Jehle has directed emergency services at Erie County Medical Center. But before moving to Buffalo, he and his colleagues at the Allegheny General Hospital in Pittsburgh studied 1,444 trauma patients admitted over the course of one year. The researchers -- surprise -- had one eye on the moon.

"There was no trend in favor of full-moon days," Jehle said. "In fact, there was a slight trend in the opposite direction. There was little difference in the number of patients on full-moon days."

Jehle attributes the full-moon fascination to human behavior and the tendency for people to register events occurring on full-moon nights as memorable.

"You get back in your car after you've had a really crazy night and see that bright full moon? You remember that," he said.

Moon and the womb

If the full moon can pull the waters of oceans and seas, what is its effect on the amniotic waters of the womb?

"From 20 years of experience, I know that when I see a full moon I will have a lot more miscarriages and people with ruptured membranes," said Dr. David Kurss of the Women's Wellness Center in Williamsville.

"My colleagues on the labor and delivery staff feel they should be braced for a hectic day when there's a full moon," Kurss added. "The perception among health care practitioners is one of association."

The bulk of literature, however, does not indicate a correlation between a drop in barometric pressure or the phases of the moon and ruptured membrane and delivery. In addition, published studies on the frequency of births as related to the lunar cycle are inconsistent with each other.

For example, the distribution of all births during 51 lunar cycles -- from March 17, 1974, to April 30, 1978 -- was analyzed by researchers at the University of California at Los Angeles.

There were 11,691 live births, of which 8,142 were natural, 141 multiple and 168 stillbirth. In none of the samples was the mean number of births occurring on the date of the full moon above average.

A time of growth

Even shrimp know enough to hide, when to burrow their way into the sand to avoid detection under the relentless glare of the full moon.

"They tend to bury themselves during full moon," said Donna M. Fernandes, president of the Buffalo Zoo. "They're easier to pick off, because they are visible, so they hide."

Fernandes, who conducts a seminar on animal courtship and mating, points to one ancient arachnid who moves by the moon.

"The horseshoe crab spawns in the spring full moon, when there is a vernal tide, a super big tide," Fernandes said. "I don't know if animals see each other better when there is a full moon, but that's when the horseshoe crabs breed. Corals time their breeding to the full moon, and there's a fish called the grunion that spawns during spring tide using the moon as a cue."

Deer, too, become amorous by the light of the moon.

"The majority of the breeding activity takes place during the first full moon after the autumnal equinox," said Joel Thomas, who deals with a number of animal species in his job as wildlife administrator for the Erie County SPCA. "That's called the hunter's moon or the rutting moon. A few days before and a few days after, you will see an increased amount of activity among white-tail deer: bucks chasing does, deer crossing highways, deer out in the open, where they normally are not."

Lunar phases can also govern gardening. From new moon to first-quarter phase, above-ground leafy annuals -- broccoli, cabbage and celery -- should be planted, according to moonlore. After the first quarter, plant beans, peas and pumpkins. After the full moon and until the third quarter, plant bulbs and root crops including beets, carrots and potatoes.

Speaking of growing, if you want your hair to grow slowly, have it cut during the waning moon. If you want fast growth on your dome, get a haircut during the waxing moon, like William Yuhnke did. The owner of Liberty Cab has more than a few full-moon stories to tell.

"If you talk to some of the drivers, they'll say there are a lot of wacky people out on full-moon nights," Yuhnke said. "It seems like the whole world goes nuts. Even my dispatchers, when they come to work, they're saying it's going to be one of those crazy nights. My wife even called and told me to get a haircut, that hair is supposed to grow in better after a full-moon cut.

"But I'm a totally factual person," he said. "I deal with facts. I don't believe in alternative stuff."

So what about the haircut?

"It's coming back pretty thick," Yuhnke said.

e-mail: jkwiatkowski@buffnews.com