Reports of slaughtered farm animals and shadowy figures in darkened yards have Puerto Rican authorities hunting for what they believe is an exotic jungle cat now prowling the wooded fringes of the island's densely populated capital.

Wildlife officials patrolled streets and undeveloped lots in a sort of suburban safari on Sunday, searching for a nocturnal predator that has mauled a sheep, ripped apart chickens, and dominated newspaper headlines in this tropical U.S. territory since last week.

The beast, described by witnesses as a black panther, has dodged marksmen, motion-sensitive cameras, and cage-like traps — including one baited with a live goat, according to Natural Resources Secretary Javier Velez Arocho.

Ten sightings were reported of a 4-foot-long cat stalking a stretch of Rio Piedras, a San Juan suburb that is home to a 21,000-student university campus, Velez said. The elusive animal could weigh as much as 150 pounds, he added.

Search parties scoured the area without result, and Velez urged residents to keep an eye on their children and look to defend themselves if they encountered a big cat.

"We would use guns to kill this animal only as a last resort," Velez said.

A loose panther could be the escaped pet of drug traffickers, who are known for crowding their compounds on the island with rare, caged jungle cats and pedigree dogs, Velez said. It is illegal to own nonnative predators such as jungle cats in Puerto Rico.

Farm animals have died in inexplicable episodes on the island for decades.

In the mid-1990s, widespread news coverage chronicled the exploits of a mysterious beast known as "Chupacabras," the "Goatsucker" in Spanish, which was rumored to dine on the blood of livestock and household pets.