Trouper was rescued by animal rehabilator Dorothy Lee, who also has impaired sight
Credit: Courtesy Wildlife Education Project

Seven years ago, Dorothy “Dot” Lee was rehabilitating several orphaned baby squirrels at her home in North Carolina, when she received the phone call that would change her life.

“Dot,” her friend told her, “you need to get out to the golf course right away. I have a baby raccoon that needs your help. Somebody beat him up with a golf club.”

It was June 10, 2009 — the raccoon’s last day of life, Lee thought, when she saw the extent of the kit’s injuries.

“He’d been hit so badly in the head that I couldn’t find his right eye,” she tells PEOPLE, “and he was suffocating in his own blood and couldn’t breathe. I didn’t see much hope there.”

Still, Lee, a retired schoolteacher and licensed wildlife rehabilitator, who has cared for thousands of injured or orphaned squirrels since 2001, took the 9-week-old raccoon home, cleaned up his wounds, made him a bed with a heating pad and gave the kit fluids every two hours around the clock for five days. When the young raccoon still didn’t move, she wept, knowing that he would have to be euthanized.

“I stood over him, tears dropping on his little head, telling him I’m sorry,” she says, “and then suddenly, the little bugger opened his mouth and yawned. And then he stretched every limb. From that day forward, he kept getting better.”

Today, Trouper, as she named him, is an “animal ambassador” in Fort Myers, Florida, where Lee moved in 2009 rather than follow North Carolina law and release the blind, brain-damaged raccoon into the wild or euthanize him after six months.

“I made Trouper a promise that I would never give up on him and would never let another human hurt him,” she tells PEOPLE. “So I sold everything I owned and moved to one of the few states where I could keep him if I licensed him as a service ambassador.”

She and Trouper now visit two or three schools, libraries and civic centers every week to teach children — and their parents — to respect wildlife.

“I tell them that Trouper didn’t get any respect from the person who hurt him — he’ll never climb a tree, feed himself or go fishing with his family like other raccoons,” says Lee, 71, who is single with no children, suffers from multiple sclerosis and is sight-impaired. “I also tell them that he’s not a pet. The only reason he lives with me is that he can’t care for himself.”

Lee, who launched the Wildlife Education Project, a website featuring Trouper and a Facebook page to take the raccoon’s story nationwide, does everything from hand-feed Trouper (his favorite meal is chicken nuggets and peaches, followed by marshmallows) to bathe him, trim his nails and give him plenty of play time. She has also taught him to stand up, swim and to use a blue wading pool as a bathroom.

“Trouper has his own bedroom — he’ll never be in a cage,” she tells PEOPLE. “He’s family and so I treat him as such.”

When Lee noticed that Trouper was enraptured by the voice of Jackie Evancho on America’s Got Talent, she started playing Evancho’s recordings for an hour every evening, with the raccoon cuddled on her lap.

“He knows that he is loved,” she says, “and I also know that he loves me. He’s changed my life, absolutely. Every night, when I take him to his room and put him to bed, I tell him that he’s the most terrific raccoon in the entire world, universe and galaxy. He’s given my life meaning and a purpose. There’s nothing that I wouldn’t do for Trouper.”