The Greatest Show on Earth will soon come to an end, after more than 100 years of astonishing crowds in cities and towns around the world.

Citing declining ticket sales and, crucially, a shift in public opinion toward greater protections for animals, the Ringling Bros. Circus announced that it will pack up its wagons for the very last time in May 2017.

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Getty Images Entertainment / Brian Ach

No more will children laugh at the antics of the clowns. No more will they gasp at the meticulously trained behavior of a lion or a tiger. The circus is leaving town, and it isn’t coming back again.

This is the moment animal rights activists have been working toward for decades.

“It’s just not acceptable any longer to cart wild animals from city to city and have them perform silly yet coercive stunts,” Wayne Pacelle, President and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States, told CNN. “I know this is bittersweet for the Feld family [who owns the circus], but I applaud their decision to move away from an institution grounded on inherently inhumane wild animal acts.”

This begs a serious question:

Where will the lions, tigers, dogs, and horses go in their retirement? Who will care for them now that the show is over?

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AFP / STAN HONDA

That question has already been answered for the circus’ most iconic animal performers: the elephants. The Ringling Bros. circus operates a 200-acre wilderness facility called the Center for Elephant Conservation. That’s where the pachyderm performers will go to learn how to be wild again, or as close as they can get after a lifetime of trading tricks for treats.

The big cats are another story. Ringling Bros. doesn’t have a facility dedicated to caring for lions and tigers. Zoos have their own animals — many of them even practice “culling” of big cats to prevent crowding and ensure genetic diversity.

“Who will take in these animals?” circus leadership asked.

The Wild Animal Sanctuary in Keenesburg, Colorado raised a hand.

Pat Craig, Executive Director of the Wild Animal Sanctuary, told Denver 7 News that performing animals face unique challenges as they try to transition into a more natural life.

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“They were trained to perform for treats and other things,” he said. “So the idea of working for their worth – and they get rewarded. For us to unwind all that, and teach them that they don’t have to work for food, they can just enjoy life,” Craig said.

This is a transition that animal experts at the Wild Animal Sanctuary have successfully navigated for dozens of other big cats. They currently care for more than 400 wild animals, including African lions, tigers, black bears, wolves, and mountain lions. If anyone can make sure the Ringling Bros. animals enjoy a nice retirement, it’s the staff at the Wild Animal Sanctuary.

But it won’t happen immediately.

“They’ve lived a very unnatural life,” Craig said. “Then to be able to transition to a natural one doesn’t just happen instantaneously. You can’t just throw them out there and say, ‘Get along.'”

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Getty Images News / Justin Sullivan

Still, Craig said, the process is worth all the hard work it will require. He and his staff just want to see the animals safe, healthy, and happy. To him, the closing of the Ringling Bros. circus is a wonderful new development.

“After we see animals like this that come from those kinds of lives and how great they prosper in this kind of life, you would want every animal like that to be free,” he said. “So it was big news for us to see that they’re closing.”

There aren’t many facilities of this type that can ensure good homes for large, highly-trained animals. The Wild Animal Sanctuary is one of only 70 fully accredited sanctuaries in the U.S., and of those 70 operations, only around 12 accept big cats and other large predators.

The lions and tigers that entertained circus-goers will enjoy a lovely, well-deserved retirement. It might take them a few months, or even a year, to adapt to life outside the cage. But there’s no doubt that they’ll love their new home.