Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey’s Red Unit, one of the now-closed show’s two traveling groups, performed for the last time May 7 in Rhode Island. An emotional peak of that performance, the Providence Journal reported, came when the big-cat trainer tearfully thanked each one of the tigers in his act.

Within days, 15 of those Ringling tigers had arrived at their new home: a Tennessee sanctuary called Tiger Haven, where they are now living out their years on a wooded, 45-acre refuge alongside more than 250 other big cats retired from performing groups, relinquished by zoos or rescued from private owners.

“Yes, indeed, the Ringling cats are doing wonderfully,” Cheryl Haddad, Tiger Haven’s office manager, said Tuesday. “They’re certainly enjoying retirement.”

Feld Entertainment, the company that owned Ringling, has gotten attention recently for its federal application to export 15 other big cats owned by the British trainer of the circus’s Blue Unit; he plans to continue performing with them in a German circus. But the company refused to disclose where the tigers it owned now are living, saying only that they’d been placed in good homes.

Tennessee state documents obtained by Delcianna Winders, a vice president with the PETA Foundation, show that the 15 cats were received by Tiger Haven on May 10. They joined a 16th Ringling tiger, a 19-year-old female named Mariah, who was sent there in February.

The Ringling tigers’ fate had been the subject of speculation, partly because this country’s very large but poorly regulated population of captive tigers has led to a growing number of abandoned big cats. The situation has sanctuaries stretched thin since few can provide the meat, space and care the massive predators require. Despite their cramped quarters, some prominent sanctuaries told The Washington Post this year that they would be willing to house the Ringling tigers.

Tiger Haven is less well known than other big-cat sanctuaries. It is not open to the public and so is not subject to inspections by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It also does not engage in the public advocacy against private ownership of wild animals that some sanctuaries do.

Haddad said Tiger Haven had an existing relationship with Ringling, having previously accepted some of its cats. “They have no problems with us, and we have no problems with them,” she said. “I have nothing disparaging to say about Ringling. They’ve always done well by their animals.”

That is not the view of many animal-protection organizations and advocates, whose criticism and undercover investigations contributed to the show’s decision to retire its iconic elephants and, ultimately, to its demise. Stephen Payne, a spokesman for Feld Entertainment, declined to comment on the tigers, referring questions to Tiger Haven.

Winders said she had hoped the tigers would end up at a refuge accredited by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries, which she called the “gold standard.” Tiger Haven is accredited by the American Sanctuary Association, a group whose president is the actress and animal advocate Tippi Hedren. But Winders emphasized that she had no reason to believe the tigers were not in good hands, noting that Tiger Haven neither displays nor breeds its cats.

“This facility does seem to have the best of intentions,” she said. “There’s absolutely no question that these cats are in better conditions than when they were with Ringling.”

Tiger Haven, about 30 miles west of Knoxville, was founded in 1991 by Joe and Mary Lynn Parker. The former zoo volunteers started by taking in one abused tiger and found, Joe Parker told the Associated Press, that “we have a thing for tigers and they pretty much have one for us.” The couple soon discovered that there was a great need for homes for abandoned, retired and mistreated big cats, and they began accepting more.

“One thing we feel strongly about: A sanctuary must be a safe place for the cats and a permanent home,” says Tiger Haven’s website, which decries “the atrocious situations in which many captive big cats must live.”

The sanctuary’s 45 acres of enclosures housed 258 big cats as of early February, according to meeting minutes posted on the website. The residents include several dozen tigers, as well as lions, leopards, pumas and smaller wildcats such as lynxes. Each day, the website says, handlers feed the felines 2,000 pounds of beef and chicken sprinkled with vitamin powder.

The Ringling tigers — 11 females and five males that state documents describe as ranging in hue from “golden tabby” to “snow” — are housed in small groups, according to Haddad. Each group has its own raised deck and room to run, she said, and those that enjoy it are treated to water play with a hose on hot days. Like other former traveling felines, the Ringling cats often snooze in a pile in their “den box,” she added.

“I think it’s what they’re used to — bunking in together,” she said. “They seem pretty darn comfortable.”

Tiger Haven’s cats receive medical care from University of Tennessee, Knoxville, veterinarians, in a relationship that goes back about 15 years, said Edward Ramsay, a professor of zoological medicine. The university’s vet school now has a dedicated “tiger room” for treating the sanctuary’s animals, with a garage door to facilitate their entry and exit. Ramsay said he speaks to sanctuary staff members regularly and visits there about once a week, and he frequently recommends it to zoo managers who are seeking a retirement home for their cats.

Tiger Haven’s chain-link enclosures “are not exhibits like you would see at the zoo. That said, a lot of the things you see in zoo exhibits are really done for people’s aesthetics as much as [for] the animals,” said Ramsay, whose other primary client is the Knoxville Zoo. “They’re treating their animals every bit as well as the average zoo, and in many cases, I think, better. The animals get a lot of attention.”

The sanctuary was for years engulfed in battles with neighbors, who sued it more than once over what they alleged was contaminated runoff, foul odor and noise. County commissioners also took aim at the refuge, recently over a fence permit. Those disputes are over, Tiger Haven’s February meeting minutes reported.

Timothy Barringer, a neighbor who set up a website critical of Tiger Haven, said the sanctuary seems to have made efforts recently to address neighbors’ concerns. The facility has a “noble cause,” he added, though he is still not a huge fan of having hundreds of wildcats nearby.

“Have you heard a tiger lately?” Barringer said. “They’re really loud. You can live a half-mile away, and they’re still pretty loud.”

Read more: