Lima, Peru (AP) – At her job, Maria Torero cares for sick human beings. At home, she lavishes love on slowly dying cats — 175 of them at last count.
The 45-year-old nurse has turned her two-story, eight-room apartment into a hospice for cats with feline leukemia, scattering it with scores of feeding dishes and at least two dozen litter boxes.
Some have suggested she shelter healthy cats instead. "That's not my role," she told The Associated Press. "I'm a nurse. My duty is to the cats that nobody cares about."
She said that "people don't adopt adult cats, especially if they are terminally ill."
For five years, Torero has ministered to animals as they slowly succumb to the common, fatal retrovirus, which is not contagious to humans or other species. It usually is transmitted through direct contact, mutual grooming and the sharing of litter boxes, food and water bowls, according to the website of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
She finds the cats in Lima's streets and markets and has them tested for leukemia. Nearly all of the street cats turn out to have the disease, as well as fleas, parasites and malnutrition. She takes in only adult cats to avoid spreading the disease to new generations.
"Bringing a kitten here is condemning it to death," she said.
Torero names the cats — Fellini, Peppa, Dolly, Misterio among them — and dresses many in small shirts. "Each one has a distinct personality," she said.
She said she doses out medicine, sterilizes the animals and treats them for parasites every two months. Her arms bear the scratches of cats that resist the injections.
She estimated she spends about $1,785 a month to care for the cats, half of that from donations and the other half from her job as a private nurse.
Her three children, ages 16, 14, and 6, share the apartment and often play or cuddle with the cats, many of which sleep in plastic organizer bins and sprawl across seemingly every chair and shelf.
The cat boxes and heavy use of deodorants don't quite mask the odor of urine, but Torero said her neighbors haven't complained.
Cats with leukemia can survive for several years, though their lifespan is usually much shorter than that of an unaffected cat. They eventually die naturally; Torero hasn't the resources to have them put down. There are no special ceremonies.
"My best gift of love and respect I give them in life," she said.