Ringling Bros. tigers are headed for a German circus and animal activists are outraged

The "Greatest Show on Earth" may have come to an end, but that doesn't necessarily mean its lions and tigers will be able to retire to a more natural living environment, as animal activists across the globe had hoped. Documents obtained by CBS News show that Feld Entertainment, the parent company of the Ringling Bros. circus, has applied for an Endangered Species Act permit with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to export 15 of its big cats to a circus in Munich, Germany, called Zirkus Krone.

"Feld Entertainment, Inc., d.b.a. Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey ('Ringling Bros.') respectfully submits an application to re-export to Germany fifteen (15) captive bred big cats (lions, tigers and a leopard) under CITES and ESA," the application reads. "These animals were imported into the United States and have been performing under a contract with Ringling Bros. Blue Unit."

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Alexander Lacey works with a tiger during a pre-show of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus at Eagle Bank Arena April 14, 2017 in Fairfax, Virginia. With competition from new age technology and fierce opposition from animal rights groups, the historic Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, which began in 1871, closed for good on May 21, 2017. 

Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

The application lists the recipient of these animals as "Alexander Lacey c/o Zirkus Krone," and states that the "animals will be returning to Europe with their owner/trainer." That means these 15 lions, tigers and leopards may continue many more years of performances with the very same big cat trainer they worked with at Ringling Bros.

In theory, for such a permit to be issued, Ringling Bros. would have to demonstrate that the underlying activity for which the permit is being sought "enhance[s] the propagation or survival of the species." The problem with that, according to the Animal Legal Defense Fund, is that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service allegedly operates under what they call a "pay-to-play approach to the enhancement requirement."

"What the service has done in the past," explains Tony Eliseuson, senior staff attorney for the Animal Legal Defense Fund, "is that instead of having businesses prove that an import or export is going to benefit the species as a whole, they've allowed you to make a nominal donation to any kind of conservation group or purpose in exchange for rubber-stamping the permit."

Feld Entertainment, for its part, argues that the Animal Legal Defense Fund fundamentally misunderstands the situation.

"First and foremost, these are Alexander's cats," Stephen Payne, a spokesperson for Feld Entertainment, tells CBS News. "He has always owned them. His family has raised them for generations. He loves them. They're like members of his family, so of course they're staying with him. In fact, if you watched our final show, you'd have seen how much Alexander cares for these animals. It was really quite emotional."

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Alexander Lacey performs with big cats during a showing of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus at Eagle Bank Arena April 14, 2017 in Fairfax, Virginia. With competition from new age technology and fierce opposition from animal rights groups, the historic Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, which began in 1871, will be closing for good on May 21, 2017. 

Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

The company's plans have struck a nerve, given that Ringling Bros. was forced to fold up its tents because of declining ticket sales in part blamed on pressure from animal rights activists protesting the treatment of the circus's animals, most notably its elephants. These activists were protesting with the intended goal of having the animals retired to a native area or sanctuary, not another circus. 

In response to those protests, Ringling Bros. retired its elephants a year and a half before the traveling circus played its final show, sending them to the circus's Center for Elephant Conservation in Florida.

While animal rights activists remain uncertain as to the quality of life these retired elephants are experiencing there, the action shows that Ringling Bros. is clearly aware of the situation's sensitivity. Now, animal rights activists are outraged that the circus's big cats are not receiving the same sort of retirement.

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Amy Jannette, her nearly-nude body painted like a tiger, sits in a cage in New York's Times Square as part of a PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) protest against the use of exotic animals by the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, on March 9, 2006.

Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images

"If the application is approved -- and there's sadly a high probability that it will get issued -- the animals will be going to an individual circus trainer, named Alexander Lacey," Eliseuson tells CBS News. "The application is a bit murky, but my understanding is that the intent is to have these lions, tigers and leopards perform at a circus in Germany. In theory, Ringling Bros. would have to show that there's a scientific benefit to the species for this export. Obviously, though, there's no benefit whatsoever to the species when the purpose is to go to a circus. It's pure exploitation, designed to make a profit. The animals get treated very harshly."

In that regard, Payne says the situation with the circus's cats is very different from the situation with its elephants.

"The elephants belonged to the company," he explains. "These cats have always belonged to Alexander, just like the circus's dogs belonged to our dog trainer, Hans Klose. They performed under our USDA exhibitor's license and, as such, had to meet the federal and state care requirements in the states where we performed; but Alexander is not originally from the United States, so they are now going home with their owner, simple as that."

Despite Feld Entertainment's claims, Eliseuson says the Animal Legal Defense Fund will do its best to convince the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to deny the permit the company has requested. If the USFW's past track record is any indication, however, the legal advocacy organization for animals is fighting an uphill battle. Their best hope may be a public outcry, similar to the one that pressured Ringling Bros. to shutter in the first place. And to that end, the permit request is open for public comment for 30 days beginning today.

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Alexander Lacey performs with lions and tigers during the final farewell staging of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus on May 21, 2017 at the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Uniondale, New York, the circus that has entertained crowds for 146 years with its "Greatest Show on Earth". 

Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images

"After spending years being carted around in cramped transport cages for 50 weeks of the year, it's time for Ringling and trainer Alexander Lacey to let these tigers live out their lives at a reputable sanctuary where they can experience the space, habitats and peace they need and deserve," Animal Legal Defense Fund Executive Director Stephen Wells in a press release

It's a passionate plea, but Feld Entertainment insists it's also misguided.

"The Animal Legal Defense Fund doesn't have the slightest clue how these animals are cared for and this is frankly just one last-ditch effort to attack Ringling Bros. in a campaign for donations and one last headline," says Payne.