A blood-sucking alien predator is ravaging animals throughout the Puerto Rican countryside, or so say this town's mayor and scores of uneasy rural dwellers.

Misael Negron, a 25-year-old college student, is one of 15 Canovanas residents who say they have had a close encounter with the beast, known here as the "chupacabras," or, in its literal English translation, goat-sucker.

"I was looking off the balcony one night, and I saw it step out of a bright light in the back yard," Negron said. "It was about three or four feet tall with skin like that of a dinosaur. It had bright red eyes the size of hen's eggs, long fangs and multi-colored spikes down its head and back."

True to its name, the creature attacked the family goat, said Negron, draining the blood from its neck and disemboweling the animal.

Tales of blood-thirsty monsters have grasped the collective jugular of this U.S. island commonwealth in the past. But none has left a tangible trail of carnage as extensive as the chupacabras, which by some estimates have already caused 1,000 animal deaths and terrorized the local inhabitants.

"This is not a joke," said Canovanas Mayor Jose R. Soto. "A number of my constituents have lost animals in the past few months. We're taking it very seriously because it's killing animals right now, but people could be next."

The government gave some credence to the chupacabras hysteria recently by launching an investigation of the night attacks. At least part of the reason was concern about its impact on the tourist industry. Puerto Rico is just now rebounding from a drop in tourism, and tourist dollars, caused by water problems last year and an oil spill two winters ago that washed a black slick onto the beaches around some of San Juan's nicest hotels. This year, officials, hoteliers and shopkeepers say they are expecting one of the best winters ever -- provided rumors of bizarre predators don't scare people off.

The mysterious creature earned its tag because many of its earliest victims reportedly were goats. But, according to the nearly daily accounts of animal maulings, its diet also includes cattle, chicken, sheep, pigs, dogs and cats, even peacocks.

A sportsman and gun collector, Soto led a "safari" last month to locate the chupacabras, combing the thickly foliated foothills of the Caribbean National Forest, known as El Yunque. Some 200 townsfolk, civil defense workers, and gun-packing police and prison guards formed the search party, using a caged goat as bait.

They didn't bag the beast, but Soto claims the safari was a success. "Whatever it is knows that we're after it now," he said. "And if you look at the pattern where the most recent attacks have taken place, you'll see it hasn't come back here."

Jose Espinosa, public information officer for the State Civil Defense, said that while many here have mentioned everything from aliens to vampires, he is certain there is a rational, down-to-earth explanation for the recurrent attacks, but he has yet to figure it out. Perhaps it is one of those exotic pets, such as alligators or snakes, that were so popular in the 1960s and 1970s, he said. It is also possible that an animal escaped from one of two wildlife theme parks that used to operate here, including one on the Canovanas border.

The chupacabras has begun to acquire an almost outlaw notoriety. The attacks have inspired three songs, countless spoofs on prime-time television and even a new alcoholic beverage, which its inventors said was named after the chupacabras because "nobody knows what's in it."

Some here trace the chupacabras hysteria directly to Puerto Rico's crime tabloid, El Vocero, which they say is using the story to boost sales. The tabloid, which has featured the animal maimings as a major story almost daily, has indeed experienced an increase in circulation, according to El Vocero associate editor German Negroni. But he said the coverage is justified. Initially, Negroni said, he did not take the story very seriously, viewing it "as a sort of prank." But now, he said, "the reports of animal deaths are real. They are coming so fast and furious now that they are arousing the interest of doctors, scientists and even politicians. It has raised some very interesting questions."

Carlos Soto, a veterinarian who has examined the remains of a Doberman pinscher and seven rabbits killed by the mystery predator, is convinced that something very strange happened to them.

"In each case the cause of death were two deep puncture wounds under the right side of the neck," Soto said. "The wounds extended into the animals' brains, killing them instantly. The wounds were about the diameter of a drinking straw, and three to four inches in length. They weren't compatible with the bite of a dog, a monkey or any animal I've ever studied."

Soto also noted the presence of circular openings in the animal cadavers so perfect a skilled surgeon couldn't have carved them with a scalpel. What is more, none of the slaughtered animals showed signs of rigor mortis. "The rabbits were brought in more than 12 hours after death," Soto said.

For Madelyne Tolentino, 31, of Canovanas, the chupacabras is no mystery.

She and her mother stared at the chupacabras for three minutes or so one day when it paused on the sidewalk in front of their home.

"I told my mother I saw the devil," she said.

Tolentino said the creature was built "like a kangaroo without a tail," with powerful hind legs. She also noted a web-like film hanging beneath its short, pudgy arms.

The alleged sighting was one of several with multiple witnesses.

On that occasion, her husband and a co-worker at the garage across the street pulled on work gloves, then tried to tackle it, but it slipped away from them before they could nab it.

"After it was over, I said to my mother, We'd better not tell anybody about this because they'll think we're crazy.' "