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Queens Film Festival’s Castaldo hit with animal cruelty rap

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The founder and former operator of the Queens International Film Festival was charged with failing to provide sustenance to animals after she was arrested in upstate New York for allegedly keeping more than 40 dogs in cages without food or water, the executive director of the Ulster County Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals said.

Marie Castaldo, 52, was arrested by SPCA investigators last Thursday in Kingston, N.Y., and charged with one count of failure to provide sustenance to animals under a state Department of Agriculture & Markets law.

But Brian Shapiro, the SPCA’s executive director, said an additional 46 counts are pending.

“These poor dogs came to us in such bad shape,” he said. “This is a classic case of hoarding. These animals had no quality of life whatsoever.”

Most of the dogs were confined to cages and covered in fecal matter and urine and many of them were in poor medical condition with no access to food or water, Shapiro said.

Castaldo’s arrest, which followed a year-long investigation by the SPCA, is just the latest twist in a strange chronicle that has stretched from Queens to California, Pennsylvania and upstate New York.

The defendant operated the Queens International Film Festival in Long Island City and Astoria every year since 2003. But last fall, a number of individuals and institutions involved in the distribution and screening of films had accused Castaldo, the QIFF’s founder and executive director, of failing to pay them thousands of dollars over a period of years.

The alleged victims include Connecticut projectionist James Hill; Astoria’s Museum of the Moving Image; Austin, Texas-based film production company owner Kerry Wallum, who organized a tribute to musician Levon Helm that was led by Kris Kristofferson for the 2009 festival; and Brooklyn nonprofit Rooftop Films.

Dan Nuxoll, Rooftop’s founder, is currently making a documentary about Castaldo’s alleged scams, which date back at least a decade and span several continents.

A number of high-profile elected officials, from Borough President Helen Marshall as well as state Assembly and City Council members, once supported the festival prior to the allegations leveled at Castaldo.

But she is currently not facing any charges in Queens.

The film festival founder, who could not be reached for comment, is alleged to have been housing the dogs in an empty storefront of a former feed store along Old Route 28 in Phoenicia, N.Y., according to the SPCA. The animal rescue group seized all the dogs, which were taken to a shelter in nearby Kingston for emergency medical care.

It took members of the SPCA’s no-kill shelter 12 hours to seize all the dogs. Castaldo, who had been staying at a Super 8 Hotel in Kingston, was charged in Shandaken, N.Y., and held in lieu of $10,000 bail. She will return to that town’s court Aug. 12, the SPCA said.

An ongoing investigation will determine the origin of the dogs, which are a variety of breeds.

The SPCA had recently been notified that Castaldo was allegedly selling dogs from her collection in the parking lot of a supermarket in West Hurley, N.Y. She is alleged to have been involved in three bite complaint incidents during the past year, one of which resulted in a dog being euthanized, the SPCA said.

“She took advantage of people’s willingness to rescue dogs from death’s door,” Shapiro said. “Rescuing a dog from euthanasia and then sending them to a place where they will sit on top of each other in their own fecal matter is not rescuing them. Some of the dogs had muzzles on them that looked like they had been´╗┐ on for weeks. They started to become decrepit. Some of them were stained yellow from urine and many of them were emaciated.”

The shelter is looking for donations for the 47 rescued dogs, which can be sent to the Ulster County SPCA at 20 Wiedy Road, Kingston, N.Y. 12401.

Reach reporter Nathan Duke by e-mail at nduke@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4566.

Updated 6:00 pm, October 10, 2011
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